Until Monday afternoon, just about everyone following Pete Festersen's congressional campaign thought things were on track.
National and local Democratic Party leaders, who had pressed the Omaha City Council president to get in the race, thought they'd found the perfect candidate to keep Republican Lee Terry from securing a ninth term. “If you want hardworking House members,” the Nebraska Democratic Party's Twitter account announced Sunday, “vote for ... Pete Festersen.”
Donors were writing big checks. Just last week, a Festersen birthday party-fundraiser at Castle Barrett brought in more than $17,000. By year's end, the campaign was on track to have more than $200,000 in the bank.
Nebraska Democratic Party officials were meeting Monday afternoon to talk about, among other things, how the Festersen-Terry race looked promising.
That is, until their phones started buzzing. And buzzing again. Festersen had announced that he was out — and with less than a year before the election, his party was without a candidate.
Festersen said his decision, made after a weekend of discussion with his family, came down to a simple calculation. The demands of city government, business, a family with young children and a congressional campaign were more than he could handle.
“It is the right time for moderate, practical-minded people to make a difference, but I've determined it's not the right time for me or my young family to run for national office,” he told The World-Herald on Monday.
It was the second curveball of Festersen's short-lived campaign.
For months, prominent Democrats —including Vice President Joe Biden —had urged the 43-year-old Festersen to challenge Terry. And for months, he said no. He was busy with his two young children, he said. It wasn't the right time.
But over the summer, Terry's chances of a sure re-election seemed to be weakening. The National Republican Congressional Committee put him on a list of incumbents at serious risk from challengers. And during the government shutdown in the fall, Terry drew criticism for comments he made when asked if he'd decline his salary.
Festersen jumped in the race.
“Change is needed,” he said in October. “And I felt it was my responsibility to be that change.”
Now, it will be somebody else's responsibility.
Festersen said he hopes that he left enough time for a new candidate to mount a serious campaign. Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said he figures that will be the case.
“I fully expect there will be a candidate,” he said. “Rep. Terry will be held to his pledge: He pledged to serve three terms and he's running for his ninth. I think voters will hold him to that pledge.”
But neither Powers nor a handful of other prominent Democrats know how they'll do it.
For now, Terry's only challenger is another Republican, Omaha businessman Dan Frei, who labels himself a “constitutional conservative.” Frei was opposed to the Bush administration's bank-bailout bill, which Terry supported, and has said he's a fan of Rep. Steve King of Iowa, an outspoken conservative.
A handful of potential Democratic challengers said they've already ruled out a run.
Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, who came within two percentage points of unseating Terry in last year's election, said he has no interest in a rematch.
“I'm running for re-election as Douglas County treasurer,” he said. “I love what I do, and I think I made the right decision several months ago.”
State Sen. Brad Ashford, who switched his party from independent to Democrat and was mentioned as a potential contender, said he's busy with his duties in the Nebraska Legislature. So did Sen. Jeremy Nordquist.
“There's too many big issues to focus on in the Legislature,” Nordquist said. “But I'm confident we will be able to give Lee Terry a challenge.”
Justin Wayne, president of the Omaha school board and another up-and-coming Democrat, said a congressional bid isn't on his radar.
“I'm focused on OPS,” he said.
Terry, through his spokesman Larry Farnsworth, welcomed Festersen's decision to put his family first.
“Both (Terry) and (his wife) Robyn respect that decision,” Farnsworth said. “Balance is extremely difficult to find. It's something he and Robyn have been wanting to find for the last 14 years.”
Festersen plans to return donations provided to his campaign.
The good news for Terry comes as his party bounces back from challenges related to the government shutdown.
When Festersen made his decision to jump into the race in October, GOP incumbents generally were taking a beating in the polls thanks to their role in the shutdown.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released polling at the time that showed Festersen neck-and-neck with Terry.
Since then, however, the shutdown has faded from the public mindset, and Democrats have found themselves on the defensive over the troubles of the new federal health care law.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll found opposition to the health care law among Americans at 57 percent — a record high. The same poll found “almost four in 10 Americans say they are more likely to oppose a politician who backs the legislation, while just over a fifth say they would be more likely to support such a politician,” according to the newspaper.
Powers, with the Nebraska Democratic Party, said the twist from Festersen was surprising — but understandable.
“I think that this demonstrates running for public office is a difficult task,” he said.
World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.,/i>