Hastings-area race highlights some themes of legislative elections
October 26th, 2016
Half the seats in the Nebraska Legislature are up for grabs this election. Each race is different â€“ but there are some common themes.
Outside, a cool fall morning mist cloaks the Good Samaritan Societyâ€™s retirement village in Hastings. But inside the community center, the air hums with talk of the hot legislative race here.
The incumbent is Sen. Les Seiler, the 75-year-old chairman of the Legislatureâ€™s judiciary and prison oversight committees. And though the Legislature isÂ officially nonpartisan, Seiler is a registered Republican.
But in the primary, Republican governor Pete Ricketts endorsed Seilerâ€™s Republican challenger, Steve Halloran. At the candidateâ€™s forum, a manÂ bringsÂ up Rickettâ€™s opposition to Seiler.
â€œWhat did you do to step on his toes, Les?â€ he asked.
â€œI voted four times the wrong way, I guess,â€ Seiler replied, as the audience laughs.
Seiler is referring to four Rickettsâ€™ vetoes he voted to override, on bills to raise the gas tax for road construction, to let children brought to the country illegally get driversâ€™ licenses and professional licenses, and to abolish the death penalty.
â€œI think he doesnâ€™t like my votes. He also doesnâ€™t like the fact that I stood up to him. He wants to have a puppet so he can tell them how to vote,â€ Seiler said.
Seilerâ€™s opponent, Steve Halloran, is a 68-year-old restaurant owner and farm manager. Halloran says he wouldÂ do a better job representing the conservative views of the district, and would work on lowering property taxes and reforming school funding.
With Rickettsâ€™ endorsement, Halloran outpolled Seiler in the primary election, 62 to 38 percent. (For all Nebraska 2016 primary results, click here.) Now in the general election runoff, Halloran brushes aside the idea that Ricketts would tell him what to do.
â€œI think what the population or the constituents need to understand is that those that know me very well would say just contrary to that â€“ not that Steveâ€™s a contrarian but heâ€™s nobodyâ€™s yes man,â€ Halloran said.
Seiler says Ricketts opposition to him is just part of a bigger political picture.
â€œItâ€™s not just our district. Thereâ€™s about six,Â seven districts all across the state of Nebraska that heâ€™s trying to influence the outcome so that heâ€™s got a veto-free regime,â€ Seiler said.
Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor â€œsupports candidates who share his conservative principles and believe in helping taxpayers keep more of the dollars they earn.â€ Gage says Ricketts supports Republicans running against Democrats; a couple of Republicans running against fellow Republicans in districts where the incumbentâ€™s not on the ballot; and in addition to Halloran, one other Republican challenger –Bruce Bostelman — to a Republican incumbent — Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo. Like Seiler, Johnson also voted to override Ricketts on the gas tax increase and license issues. Like Seiler, he finished second in the primary.
Halloran says his primary win makes some legislative lobbyists unhappy, because they arenâ€™t used to dealing with successful challengers.
â€œThey told me Steve, weâ€™ve got to keep giving our funds our finances to Sen. Seiler the incumbent because weâ€™ve got too much invested in him,â€ Halloran said.
From the beginning of last year through Oct. 4, Seilerâ€™s campaign reported nearly $50,000 in contributions from groups including the highway lobby, realtors, trial attorneys and the state teachers union. By contrast, Halloranâ€™s collected only about $5,000, from groups including tobacco and insurance interests, and coops.
But Halloran has also benefited from another, less traceable kind of spending during this campaign. The group Americans for Prosperity is mailing out flyers criticizing Seiler for voting to raise the gas tax. But as a so-called social welfare group not primarily engaged in political campaigning, the group does not have to report where its money comes from, or how much itâ€™s spending.
Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission Executive Director Frank Daley says such groups typically create advertising that doesnâ€™t fit the definition of campaigning, but rather, run â€œissue ads.â€
â€œAn issue ad is a type of ad that either says something very, very positive about a candidate, based upon his or her record, or says something very, very negative about a candidate based upon his or her record, but never actually mentions the fact that he or she is a candidate; never actually mentions the fact that there is an election day pending, and never actually suggests that someone ought to vote for or against that candidate,â€ Daley said.
Seiler told the candidatesâ€™ forum thatâ€™s an unfair loophole that lets rich people make tax-deductible contributions used to influence political races.
â€œIt makes no sense unless youâ€™re a multimillionaire that you can avoid huge amounts of taxes and still try and get what you want,â€ he said.
Halloran told the forum he has no contact with the outside groups advertising in the race, and doesnâ€™t want any.
“That being said, I think what needs to be judged on these flyers that may come out on any candidate is how truthful they are,â€ he said.
Americans For Prosperity could not be reached for comment. Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor has not contributed to the group.
In addition to the Seiler-Halloran and Bostelman-Johnson races, 23 other legislative seats are on the ballot across the state. (For a sample ballot listing all legislative races, click here). Four of those have only one candidate. The outcome in the rest, with the dynamics of outside groups vs. lobbyists spending, registered Democrats vs. registered Republicans, and those supported by the governor vs. those opposed by him, will determine the composition of the Legislature for the next two years.
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