Neb. GOP congressman fizzles
© Greg Nash

Congressional Republicans are increasingly giddy about riding a Republican wave to victory in November, but it’s longtime Rep. Lee TerryLee Raymond TerryAshford, Eastman neck and neck in Nebraska Dem primary GOP rep.: 2014 a 'bad year' for car safety What a Republican Senate means for the environment MORE (R-Neb.) who is suddenly strapping on his lifejacket. 

Just a short time ago, Terry seemed to be primed for reelection. He bested a tough challenge in the May primary, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) hadn’t even budgeted ads against him in his GOP-leaning Omaha-based district. 

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But a few months later, the tide against him is rising. National handicappers rate the race a toss up, and Terry is now in one of a handful of vulnerable GOP incumbents in his race against state Sen. Brad Ashford (D). Overall, Republicans are on track to make gains in the House, but Terry’s is one seat they very well might lose. 

“I don’t want to say they’ve got a perfect storm, because certainly there’s not a tide that benefits the Democrats [nationally], but there’s definitely an anti-incumbency tide here in this district,” said Randy Adkins, the head of the political science department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Terry has held this seat since 1999, but his margin of victory has trended smaller over the past few elections. After winning three elections by 30-point margins, he won by just 2 points in 2012.

Republicans have started losing enthusiasm for Terry, Adkins said. But he said Democrats haven’t capitalized because they’ve had trouble matching a “quality candidate” with the right financial backing. 

Now with Ashford, who has won the endorsement of the city’s largest newspaper, and substantial help from the DCCC, the Democrats have their best chance yet, if they can sway independent voters. 

That’s why both candidates are trying to grasp the center and paint each other as out of touch and too partisan for the district, but still trying not to leave their bases behind.

“My opponent is doing a great job of showing how liberal he is,” Terry told The Hill. “My opponent says he’s independent, but yet, he’s almost verbatim spouting out the DCCC’s talking points.” 

Terry is the chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee and is a vocal supporter of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which he says is vital to decreasing America’s energy dependence.

But Terry has not always helped himself. He made a crass joke earlier this year about General Motors’ faulty ignition switches, which caused crashes that killed 13 people. And he dismissed the idea of giving back his paycheck during the federal shutdown.

“Dang straight,” he told The Omaha World-Herald in October 2013. “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college.”

In Ashford’s mind, the gaffe is critical and indicative of larger issues. That’s why both he and the DCCC have repeatedly dogged Terry on the comments. Three recent DCCC ads all dig up the comments, and unrelated Ashford statements sometimes pivot towards the quote.

Although Terry admits he doesn’t know how important the remark is to voters, he said he apologized and doesn’t understand why it’s blanketing the airwaves.

“It was unlike me, and that’s what hurts me most when I see those ads,” he said. In his mind, the strategy is just a way for Ashford to “hit me without having to talk about his views on the issues.”

Ashford’s campaign pitches the Democrat as a contrast to the dysfunction of Washington. He touts his time as Judiciary Committee chairman in the Nebraska Legislature, a unique single-house legislative branch. That record is one of the reasons The Omaha World-Herald endorsed him on Monday over Terry, whom the board called “a prisoner of D.C. gridlock.”

“He’s been in Congress for 16 years but has been ineffective in passing legislation, he votes with the Republican party on hyper-partisan bills instead of creating change,” Ashford said in an emailed statement. “I’ve got a proven 16 year record in Nebraska’s Unicameral of reaching across the aisle to solve the tough issues facing our state.”

But that same record could also spell trouble for Ashford.

Starting with their first debate in late September, Terry began hitting Ashford as soft on crime, specifically targeting his support for a Nebraska law that effectively cuts almost all prison sentences in half, as long as inmates remain on good behavior.

In a tragedy that sent shockwaves through Omaha, prison inmate Nikko Jenkins left jail early in 2013 and went on to kill four people.

Terry slammed Ashford for failing to implement legislative fixes to Nebraska’s “good time” laws and for “putting people in jeopardy.”

 “He had the opportunity, through the governor’s bill, and state legislators had a variety of bills, to fix the problem and refused to,” Terry said in an interview.

Ashford responded during the debate that the state’s penitentiaries were to blame for not taking away part of Jenkins’s sentence reduction despite the fact that he did not stay out of trouble while in prison. His new campaign ad includes a former U.S. attorney and a former judge praising Ashford’s push to up consequence for gang and gun crimes.  

“Congressman Terry is lobbing baseless and desperate attacks from his flailing campaign,” he said in a statement. “The Omaha World-Herald endorsed me and said that, ‘few lawmakers have done more to enhance public safety,’ than me.”

The two sides continue to spar over the issue in ads, but Adkins called the move “very effective.”

“The Terry campaign really changed the direction and discussion that was going on almost since the gaffe,” he said. “Nobody was talking about his government shutdown comment, everyone was talking about ‘good time.’”

And with just a few weeks left in a tight race, controlling the message will be vital, whether it be on the “good time” laws, Terry’s gaffes or something else. 

“I think it’s going to be a close race, so anything that can move the needle a couple points may influence the outcome of the election,” Adkins predicted.