A crowded pack: Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race


January 29th, 2014

Omaha, NE – Amidst the clatter of ice tea refills and last bites of dessert, some of Nebraska’s U.S. Senate candidates got a few minutes to impress a crowded Lincoln hotel banquet room last week. The noon hour forum, sponsored by the Lincoln Independent Business Association (LIBA), featured seven candidates armed with polished stump speeches, hit and miss jokes, and the always sure to please references to Husker sports.

For most of this crowd of businessmen and businesswomen, it was an early introduction to the race. Around one table, people joked they weren’t even sure if these were all of the candidates. They were right, since three weren’t involved in this event.

The Lincoln Independent Business Association Senate candidate forum on Jan. 21. (Photos by Mike Tobias, NET News)

The Lincoln Independent Business Association Senate candidate forum on Jan. 21. (Photos by Mike Tobias, NET News)

Currently there are five Republicans running for Senate.

All but Johnson are running campaigns with high levels of resources, in areas like fundraising, staff and communication.

The three Democrats in the race are:

Domina, who recently entered the race, is the lone Democrat expected to run a high-resource campaign.

Add to the mix two Independent candidates:

Both are working to gather the 4,000 signatures necessary to be on the general election ballot.

It’s a crowded, wide-open race, created by Senator Mike Johanns’ stepping down and Governor Dave Heineman deciding not to run. Some tough choices await for voters like those at the LIBA forum.

“Kind of, yes,” Nicole Beck agreed. “There are quite a few and it’s kind of hard to narrow it down.”

“I don’t think anybody has really followed any of these guys on where they stand on everything,” Monte Rasmussen added. “So that’s why I think a forum like this is good.”

There are less than four months before the May primary. Especially for candidates in the more contested Republican primary, that’s not much time to break out of the crowded field.

“What is going to make you basically be the cream that rises to the top? And there’s several entities in play. Obviously, number one is who’s going to raise the money,” said Nancy Bocskor, a veteran of Nebraska politics and a former state Republican party executive director who’s worked on hotly contested GOP primary campaigns. Bocskor is now a professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

Bocskor says raising money is not easy in a primary. Some donors will hold on to their money until the general election, and the pool of donors is spread thin.

“You’re hitting the same people and although some people will cover their butts and give money to more than one candidate, most people don’t,” Bocskor said. “There’s only a finite pool of money in Nebraska. It’s a little bit more difficult to raise money out in rural Nebraska so which of these candidates really have contacts beyond the state, and so you need to really create in the Senate race a national fundraising operation.”

“You also see the introduction of the super PACs and other national PACs into these races,” added Paul Landow, another veteran of Nebraska politics who has worked on campaigns and as staff for Nebraska Democrats, and is now a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “They bring fresh money that typically would not be available to a Nebraska candidate.”

Sasse is the early fundraising leader in the Senate race, in numbers reported by each campaign. He raised about $1.4 million by the end of 2013, allowing his campaign to launch television ads. Osborn raised $939,000, Dinsdale $684,000 and McLeay $439,000.

Citizen's Connected Senate candidate forum in Lincoln on Jan. 21.

Citizen’s Connected Senate candidate forum in Lincoln on Jan. 21.

Landow says money can help candidates buy name recognition, but there are other ways to break out in a primary. In an election like this, community standing and what the candidate has done in the past mean a lot.

“If you think of it in terms of a person running for a local office, like school board for example, you’d say that a person who’s been active in all the local neighborhood organizations in that district would already be off to a good start,” Landow said, “because that candidate knows so many people and has worked with so many people. It’s the same running statewide. The more prominent you are, the more community involved you are, and the more elective offices you’ve held, particularly on a statewide basis, the better off you are in terms of name recognition.”

Other factors include avoiding big mistakes that make headlines in our 24/7 media environment, and in a primary where there may not be a lot of difference between candidates on issues, personality does matter.

“Who’s going to be able to look a voter in the eye and go, you know, I really need your support,” Bocskor said. “The personal connections, emotional connections, which is why friend to friend outreach, if a good friend says, ‘I really trust this person,’ you’re going to be twice as likely to agree. So there are a lot of facets here that can’t be measured by money.”

It is often also a challenge to get voters interested in a primary. But just a few hours after the LIBA forum, another Lincoln forum sponsored by a group called Citizens Connected also drew a big crowd. Again, people in the crowd may not have known much about the large field of candidates. But in the words of audience member Phil Wittig, “Well, we’ll get ‘em thinned down.”

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