Democrats Continue to Fight Nebraska GOP’s Grasp

Posted October 16, 2013 at 3:23pm

Republicans boast a tight hold on the Cornhusker State’s delegation, leaving only one legitimate opportunity for Democrats to advance to Congress in the near future.

Last year, the GOP closed its grasp on the delegation by picking up a Senate seat previously held by Democrats. As a result, Republicans hold the state’s three House seats and two Senate seats.

To rebound, Democrats are focused on stealing the somewhat competitive 2nd District this cycle, while also fostering a deeper bench of talent for future cycles.

“There are a lot of promising candidates in the state legislature,” said Barry Rubin, the former executive chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “We are probably two years off.”

Meanwhile, the pipeline of GOP candidates continues to expand while future congressional contenders wait their turn for open-seat races and primary opportunities.

For many politicians, that opportunity comes next year: Gov. Dave Heineman and many state lawmakers will be ineligible to seek re-election because of term limit laws, and GOP Sen. Mike Johanns’ retirement has prompted a wide-open race for his seat in 2014.

“We are really focused on getting out and recruiting good Republicans to run for state legislature, to build a solid — for lack of a better term — bench,” said Robert Synhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.

All three House Republicans from Nebraska turned down an opportunity to seek Johanns’ seat, paving the way for a competitive GOP primary between former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, attorney Bart McLeay, bank president Sid Dinsdale and Midland University President Ben Sasse.

Democrats are not focused on the Senate race, instead turning their attention to the potentially competitive 2nd District. Democrats recruited Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen to challenging eight-term Rep. Lee Terry, a Republican.

After initially turning down a bid, Festersen decided to run, chalking up his change of mind to the government shutdown in recent media interviews.

President Barack Obama won this Omaha-based district in 2008 by about 1 percent —picking up an electoral vote in the process. But Republicans, who controlled redistricting in the state, modified the district boundaries last cycle to make it easier for the GOP to hold.

Last year, Obama lost the district by 7 points. But in 2012, Terry won by only 2 points — making his district the best opportunity in the state for Democrats to pick up a seat in Congress.

If Festersen fails, there’s no shortage of Omaha Democrats who could run in the 2nd District. Local Democrats named their 2012 nominee against Terry, John Ewing, as a potential candidate. They also speculated that state Sen. Heath Mello could run for the seat, as well as Howard Buffett, the grandson of Warren Buffett.

If Terry retires, Republicans named a few potential candidates as successors, including newly elected Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert —the first woman to hold that office.

Operatives also mentioned state Sen. John Murante and former Nebraska Speaker Mike Flood as potential candidates.

West of Omaha in the 1st District, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry maintains a tight hold on his seat. The five-term Republican represents mostly conservative territory that includes Lincoln.

Republicans named numerous potential successors for his seat: state Sen. Dan Watermeier, state Sen. Colby Coash, former Norfolk Mayor Jim Scheer and Nebraska Speaker Greg Adams.

But local Democratic sources only named a couple of potential candidates for the 1st District: state Sen. Amanda McGill from Lincoln and Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler.

The 3rd District includes Nebraska’s deepest red territory, including expansive farmland that covers the western, central and even eastern parts of the state.

Rep. Adrian Smith, a Republican, has represented this territory for four terms. If he leaves the House, sources noted, Adams could run for the 3rd District as well because his legislative territory spans both this and the 2nd District.

This cycle, Smith will face a rematch with his 2012 foe, Democrat Mark Sullivan, a rancher from Donovan.

Local Democratic sources mustered only one other potential candidate for this district: Crete Mayor Roger Foster. But operatives from both parties don’t expect a competitive race here anytime soon.

Farm Team is a weekly, state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.