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Around the U.S. in 50 Days: Nebraska

The 2012 elections in Nebraska looks to be a coup for the Republican Party. From the standpoint of Presidential politics, Obama stands little chance of winning the state. Nebraska has only five electoral votes and he will expend very little political capital or money attempting to win this state. But first, the Congressional races.

Redistricting was passed early in the cycle after a Democratic filibuster was defeated in the legislature. Jeff Fortenberry will possibly seek re-election although he is considering a run for the Senate. In a state with only three representatives, it is akin to be a Senator in the first place and Fotrenberry certainly has name recognition in the state. Dennis Parker who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in the 3rd District may challenge Fortenberry in a primary. Of course, if he decides on the Senate run, then Parker would have the inside track to succeed Fortenberry in the district as no Democrats have announced their candidacy.
The 2nd District is represented by Republican Lee Terry and he will face some challengers in a primary. University of Nebraska-Omaha math professor Jack Heidel and Brent Lindstrom, a financial adviser and former Cornhuskers quarterback will provide that challenge. If Democrats have any chance in Nebraska, it would be in this district. Thus far, Douglas County treasurer John Ewing and state senator Gwen Howard have signed on to face off against Terry in November. In the 3rd District, Republican Adrian Smith faces little to no opposition in his re-election bid.
Most of the intrigue in Nebraska will surround the Senate race. Recently, the Democratic Party was delivered a serious blow in keeping the Senate when incumbent, but endangered Senator Ben Nelson announced his retirement. Actually, Nelson faced an uphill battle if he stayed in the race. The dilemma for the Democratic Party was that he was the best they could offer in Nebraska. In preliminary polling against the three announced candidates for the GOP, he faced defeat against Jon Bruning, a close race against Don Stenberg, and a probably victory over Deb Fischer. Instead, the Democratic field is empty, although there are possibilities being mentioned, the most notable being former Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey. Most of the potentials will face a disadvantage due to their late entry into the race.

But, the plot thickens when it comes to the possible GOP nominees. The two most likely current frontrunners have not exactly set the house on fire. Perhaps, that is why Fortenberry is now considering a run. The natural tendency is to think that when the two frontrunners falter, it should create an opening for Fischer, but she too has failed to gain any traction in the state. Therefore, Fortenberry’s entry into the race is almost a foregone conclusion. Another consideration is that current popular GOP Governor Dave Heineman may enter the race. According to most sources, he shows no inclination to leave Nebraska for Washington, but he has not completely ruled out a run for the Senate. Very important to the eventual nominee in Nebraska, being such a conservative state, are endorsements from national figures.

State treasurer Don Stenberg recently received the endorsement of Tea Party darling Senator Jim DeMint, followed by Senator Mike Lee and talk show personality Mark Levin. These allowed Stenberg to raise considerable amounts, especially at the grassroots level, but he cannot lay claim to the Tea Party brand. Instead, the Tea Party Express, a powerful political action committee, gave its nod to Bruning. This not only offset any advantage Stenberg received from his endorsements, but the Tea Party Express is known for its trench warfare, especially in the primaries. Stenberg does not have that backing as of yet. Bruning leads in the polls which is probably why he has agreed to only one debate against Stenberg while the latter is seeking 8 debates. Bruning’s strategy is one of the frontrunner playing it safe by virtue of that frontrunner status. Of course, the biggest controversy surrounding Bruning was when he likened welfare recipients to scavenging raccoons. Although he later apologized, it provided unsolicited fodder for Stenberg. On Stenberg’s side, he has received substantial criticism for outsourcing some legal counsel and that he recused himself from a case involving nuclear waste that cost the state $21 million in legal fees paid for by the taxpayers of Nebraska. In short, there have been missteps along the way by both candidates that could be used by a stronger Democratic opponent.

Getting back to their stable of potential candidates in the wake of Nelson’s withdrawal, besides the aforementioned Kerrey, the Party is also touting popular, Omaha-based state senator Steve Lathrop who fought to maintain stem cell research at the University of Nebraska, among other legislative accomplishments. Kim Robak, a former Lt. Governor, has also been mentioned. Another consideration is Ben Nelson himself. Although he will not run again, he will certainly stay active in Nebraska politics. He has about $2-3 million in his war chest that he will likely turn into a Super PAC in order to support other Democrats in Nebraska. Thus, even though any Democrat that enters the race will start with a time disadvantage , there will be money available to them to run a statewide race.
Most analysis of this race had this as a definite Republican pick up even when Nelson was in the race. The talk after his retirement announcement was that it was now a foregone conclusion that the GOP would pick up his seat. And they most likely will. However, it would be highly foolish of the GOP not to pay attention to this race. As we have seen on way too many occasions in way too many places in the past, Republicans have snatched defeat from the jaws of certain victory, not because the Democrats fielded a great candidate (Chris Coons?, Michael Bennett?) but because the Republican Party had this amazing penchant for shooting itself in the foot (Joe Miller. Christine O’Donnell, Tom Tancredo, etc.). There is a lot to be said about primaries being a great vehicle for vetting candidates, but bruising primaries can also hurt a winnable candidate. While many are declaring this race a virtual pick up, not to sound pessimistic, I have seen other sure fire victories dissipate very quickly. If Heineman or Fortenberry enter the race, this is a no brainer. If Kerrey or even Lathrop enter for the Democrats, then Bruning (assuming the others don’t enter the race), has the best chance for victory in November.
To summarize, at this point, all five of Nebraska’s electoral votes will go to the GOP nominee, they will retain all three House seats, and that a Republican will claim Ben Nelson’s Senate seat.

Running totals thus far:
Obama with 83 electoral votes to 101 for GOP nominee;
Net gain of 2 Governors;
Net gain of 2 Senate seats, and;
Net loss of 6 House seats.

Next stop: North and South Dakota

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