By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 06/07/06 12:00 AM EDT
OMAHA, Neb. — Republicans are hoping that an independently wealthy candidate can defeat a conservative Senate Democrat in Nebraska, a state that has routinely elected Republican presidents but sent Democrats to the upper chamber in recent years.
Republicans say Ameritrade executive Pete Ricketts can beat Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) simply because Republicans in the state outnumber Democrats almost 2-1, according to data from the Nebraska secretary of state’s website.
In last month’s primary, only 35 percent of voters turned out. Ricketts, 41, won 127,385 votes, while his two competitors received about 128,000 votes combined. Nelson, 65, won 91,000 votes in an uncontested primary.
Republicans consider Nebraska so crucial to retaining control of the Senate that President Bush, who won 66 percent of the vote in the state in 2004, is giving a speech on immigration today in Omaha.
But the GOP advantage in voter-registration numbers can be misleading. Nebraskans have a history of sending Democrats, including James Exon and Bob Kerrey, to the Senate, as well as electing Democratic governors. Democrats also have won gubernatorial and Senate races in recent years in the Great Plains states of Wyoming, Kansas and North and South Dakota. In addition, Nebraska’s nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature makes it easier for voters to cross party lines, several Democratic and Republican campaign strategists said.
While the pessimistic national mood has not permeated Nebraska politics as deeply as it has elsewhere, Democratic candidates Maxine Moul, Nelson’s former lieutenant governor, and Scott Kleeb could give Republicans a scare in two of Nebraska’s three congressional districts.
Still, both sides expect the race to be close. Nelson defeated former Attorney General Don Stenberg in 2000 by just 15,000 votes and once again will have to rely on support from most Democrats and at least a quarter of Republican voters to win reelection.
Last Saturday on a blazingly hot afternoon in suburban Omaha, against a backdrop of a parade with fire trucks, pony rides and barbecue, Nelson’s advantages become evident from the warm reception he received from two voters.
“I’m a Republican, but I’m voting for you,” one voter said.
At the end of the parade, another middle-age man in shorts and a T-shirt gave Nelson a pat on the back.
“Thanks for being a moderating influence on the [Democratic] party,” he said.
Underscoring Nelson’s popularity among voters, a top campaign aide said internal polling from April showed that Nelson’s popularity remained in the upper 50th percentile and that he was viewed as favorably as Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), the former University of Nebraska football coach who lost in last month’s GOP gubernatorial primary.
Earlier that morning, at a meeting of the Douglas County Republican Party, Ricketts pleaded for party unity and emphasized that Nelson is not a Republican, perhaps implying that Nelson has significant support among Republicans.
“Ben Nelson is not a conservative and not a Republican,” said Ricketts, who was dressed in a navy blazer and white shirt. “We can make sure that the entire congressional delegation is Republican, who knows what it means to be a conservative. … Help us beat Ben Nelson.”
Nelson acknowledged that Nebraska can be difficult territory for Democrats “unless, like me, you don’t want to take away guns, rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance and [you] support traditional values.”
“There’s no one secret to winning. There are certain fundamentals,” he said. “There’s a way of talking to people. I’m a known quantity and quality that people understand.”
For both Ricketts and Nelson, money will not be an object in running a competitive race. Ricketts, a University of Chicago graduate whose father founded Ameritrade, spent $4 million to win the primary. Nelson has $2.8 million on hand, and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has told Nelson he will have the money he needs.
“We’re not going to lose for lack of money,” said Nelson, who has cast the contest as Wall Street versus Main Street. Ricketts has made runaway federal spending and taxes the central policy issues of his campaign.
Asked why Nelson should be fired, Ricketts said, “He has not done anything. … He’s not met a spending bill he does not like. He’s not a Republican.” Ricketts added that if elected he would oppose earmarks and favor distributing block grants for state government officials to disburse as they see fit.
“We don’t want a nameless, faceless bureaucrat who has never been out here” to distribute federal money, Nelson said as he continued to greet voters.
Nelson, who was suffering from shingles that prevented him from opening one eye, argued that Ricketts’s unwillingness to steer federal funds to local governments would harm law enforcement’s efforts to fight crime related to crystal methamphetamine addiction. He criticized Ricketts’s idea of creating farm savings accounts, similar to other tax-free accounts, to help farmers cope with hard times.
Nelson also said that Republican “red-meat issues” such as immigration, taxes and gay marriage play in his favor. He cited endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce and the Business-Industry PAC, as well as Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who praised his opposition to gay marriage.
While Nelson’s stance on immigration is to the right of President Bush’s, Republicans will likely attack Nelson for representing meatpackers as a lobbyist in 1999. The industry, which is dependent on immigrant labor, is upset with the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s crackdown on undocumented workers.
Although Nelson might be well-positioned to win reelection, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) looms over the race as a wildcard. Nelson and Hagel have despised each other since Hagel engineered a come-from-nowhere victory over Nelson in 1996. A former lawmaker described the rivalry as a “blood feud.”
Because Hagel is more popular among Democratic voters, perhaps for his willingness to criticize the Bush administration, than Nelson is among Republican voters, sources on both sides said one of Nelson’s challenges is to turn out Democratic voters who might be turned off by some of his conservative positions.
Ricketts also is using Hagel’s blueprint to defeat Nelson, employing Hagel’s media consultant, Doug McAuliffe, who has produced punchy advertisements such as the spot in which Ricketts’s mother pokes fun at her son’s receding hairline.
Win or lose, Ricketts’s sense of humor was on display at Saturday’s parade when he let neighborhood children, who clearly did not know who he was, spray him with a water gun.