Democrats see uphill battle for federal seat -
Published Sunday, September 1, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 12:51 am
Democrats see uphill battle for federal seat

It's almost unthinkable, but there is a chance Nebraska Democrats may not find a credible candidate to run for a wide-open U.S. Senate seat that not only doesn't include an incumbent, but also has not attracted a Republican heavyweight.

Democratic Party officials say that they will “absolutely” find a candidate, but other Democrats question — some privately — whether someone from their party would stand a chance in a Republican-dominated state like Nebraska, where super PACs can easily flood the airwaves with attack ads.

Democratic superstar Bob Kerrey's whipping in last year's Senate race also didn't do much to boost Democrats' morale in this cycle. Kerrey lost to Deb Fischer, a little-known state senator at the time, by 16 percentage points.

“You're going to see Democrats think long and hard before getting into a federal race,” said former Lt. Gov. Kim Robak, who was seen by some as a possible candidate but who has opted to stay out.

“Super PACS can come in and completely take over a campaign,” she said. “It's just difficult for a Democrat to run in a (race for statewide federal office) in Nebraska. It's the same for Republicans in a Democratic state.”

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said the days are gone when party loyalists would step forward to perform a service to their party by running for office, even though they have little chance of winning.

Politics has become too negative and too time-consuming for anyone to enter without a solid chance of winning, Sabato said.

“In the old days, people would salute you. Today, you're going to be destroyed,” Sabato said. “Every time you've gotten a ticket would be on the front page of the newspaper. Your family would suffer. Your business would not recover. You'd have to be insane to do it.”

For the first time since 1977, Republicans control all five of the state's federal offices. It's a far cry from the Democratic heydays of the 1990s, when the state had a Democratic governor (Ben Nelson) and two Democratic senators (Jim Exon and Kerrey).

In the wake of this dearth of federal office holders, Democrats have hired a national consultant to develop a strategic plan for the state party.

Mike Lux, a Nebraska native who founded a national political consulting company and who is a frequent contributor to the liberal websites Huffington Post and Daily Kos, has recently been interviewing Democratic officials — past and present — about the condition of the state party.

“There is a changing dynamic in Nebraska, and we have to be a part of it,” said Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “And we really do have to identify why we're in this situation we're in today and then identify the solution.”

Patty Zieg, who is the party's national committeewoman and who was a driving force behind Lux's hire, said that like any other organization, the party needs a long-term plan.

“There is going to be a real analysis of where our opportunities lie and where we put our resources,” Zieg said.

She also said she is confident that the state party will find a candidate.

“This is August of 2013. We've got ample time,” Zieg said. “I think there are people we're talking to who are interested. I can't give any names right now because the conversations aren't public.”

In the meantime, plenty of Republicans have entered the race or are gearing up to make the jump.

Three Republicans have already declared: Omaha trial attorney Bart McLeay, Midland University President Ben Sasse and former State Treasurer Shane Osborn.

In addition, Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale is expected to formally announce in mid-September. Dinsdale and his family own Pinnacle Bank. The longtime Republican has already begun to hire staff members.

Despite the lack of Senate candidates, Democrats have had success on the gubernatorial front. Two Democrats are in the race: former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons and State Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton.

Dubas' entry into the race last month sets up the state for a competitive primary for both of the major political parties.

So far, three Republicans are running for governor: State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, State Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege and State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha.

In addition, Republican Pete Ricketts is all but set to jump into the race sometime this month. Ricketts is the son of the founder of Ameritrade. In 2006, he unsuccessfully challenged Nelson for U.S. Senate.

Other Republicans thinking about a run include State Auditor Mike Foley and Omaha businessman Rex Fisher.

One reason Democrats may have found it easier to recruit candidates for governor is the idea that state races are less partisan. Candidates running for governor in Nebraska won't have to answer questions about whether or not they support Democratic President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“It's all about education and transportation,” Sabato said. “It's less ideological.”

National super PACS also are less likely to get involved in a gubernatorial race, allowing Democrats to win in a Republican-dominated state, as former Gov. Brian Schweitzer did in Montana.

“In Senate race, all most (voters) have to know is one letter behind a name,” Schweitzer said. “That doesn't happen in governor. Governors can break the mold.”

Contact the writer: Robynn Tysver    |   402-444-1309    |  

Robynn is's elections writer. She's covered presidential politics in Iowa's caucuses, and gubernatorial and Senate races in Nebraska.

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