With a week to go before election night, at least a couple of things are becoming clear.
First off, there’s a legitimate race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Ben Nelson. Secondly, it’s open season for big spending in state legislative races.
While it might be hard to believe that former U.S. Sen. and Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey has narrowed the gap to 3 percentage points or less (as shown in our World-Herald poll on Sunday and a Kerrey poll released Monday), it’s safe to assume that it’s a much closer race than portrayed by State Sen. Deb Fischer, whose pollster says she has a double-digit lead.
Kerrey, a Democrat, has cut into Fischer’s lead by reminding people that he’s got more experience, and by hammering at a controversy in Fischer’s own backyard.
Everyone hates negative advertising, but everyone agrees it works. And it appears that the “bad neighbor” ads criticizing Fischer and her rancher husband for suing an elderly couple over a fence boundary have been effective.
And, does hard work in the Nebraska Legislature translate into statewide name recognition? Not really. And term limits, which restricts that service to eight years, doesn’t help either in the name-recognition game.
The other thing that’s becoming abundantly clear is that the removal of spending limits on seats in the Nebraska Legislature has opened the floodgates on campaign expenditures.
The latest campaign statements that came in Monday show that incumbent Sen. Ken Haar has raised about $193,000 to win re-election while his challenger, attorney Mike Hilgers, has raised nearly $191,000.
That blows away the previous record by a single candidate, the $115,000 spent by Sen. John DeCamp in an unsuccessful run for re-election back in 1986.
Remember, this is for a part-time political position that pays $12,000-a-year (unless, of course, voters approve a pay raise at the polls on Nov. 6).
But the Haar-Hilgers race is a heavyweight bout, with environmentalists and education forces backing Haar, a former Lincoln City Council member and pro-choice Democrat, and Gov. Dave Heineman and conservative/business groups supporting Hilgers, a Republican pro-life candidate who recently moved from Texas.
There’s been some big-time donations by individuals and individual groups.
John A. Woollam, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln entrepreneur, has donated $40,000 alone to Haar. That’s enough to finance most legislative races. And the state teachers union has chipped in over $20,000 to Haar.
Meanwhile, the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation has given more than $15,000 to finance the campaign of a former employee, Larry Zimmerman.
Pete Ricketts, a Republican and member of the family that runs TD Ameritrade and the Chicago Cubs, had contributed $110,000 to a political action committee, Nebraskans for Fiscal Accountability, that has spent $156,000 through Oct. 22 for GOP candidates. That figure will rise before Election Day.
Nebraskans for Responsible Government, a PAC primarily financed by the state teachers union, the Nebraska State Education Association, and the state trial attorneys, has raised $73,000 to spend on state races, predominately to support Democrats.
And a recently formed PAC associated with Heineman, the Nebraska Leadership Committee, has reported spending $15,000 of the $35,000 it has raised by Oct. 22 to support the GOP candidates backed by the politically active governor. Talk around the Capitol says that spending will rise considerably in the final days of the election.
The governor is widely viewed as the most politically active state CEO in history. And he has $1 million in his campaign war chest that could be used for state races. He’s already cut radio commercials and robocalls in several races, bolstering his stature as someone who loves the political game.
Heineman is unique among past governors because he is the former head of a political party, the State GOP. He knows and enjoys the game of politics, the Xs and Os. Democrats may complain about that. But Heineman is who he is, and he doesn’t play softball in races he cares about, and (like the Husker sports teams he adores) he plays to win.
It should be a heck of an election night, with the U.S. Senate race in play, as well as a half dozen legislative races that will help decide if the Unicameral becomes more friendly to the governor’s tax-cutting ideas or stays on the more independent course adopted in the past two years.