(Story updated Nov. 27, 2013) There are six candidates in Nebraska's U.S Senate race and six candidates for Nebraska governor, in hotly contested races that are constantly evolving.
“The unusual feature here is that we do have two open seats for statewide offices,” said John Hibbing, University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist. “It’s pretty unusual not just in Nebraska but anywhere in the country to have that kind thing, both the governor’s mansion and a senate seat with no incumbent involved so one would think this would attract lots of interested politicos.”
How unusual? In Nebraska, the last time this happened was 1978. That year, Republican Charles Thone was elected governor and Democrat Jim Exon was elected to the Senate.
This time, it happened because term limits ended Republican Dave Heineman’s decade-long stint as governor and Republican Mike Johanns decided not to run for a second term in the Senate. But what’s also unusual is the lack of clear front runners. Heineman considered but declined running for Senate. Former Legislative speaker Mike Flood dropped out of the governor’s race to focus on his wife’s health, and scandal ended former Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy’s bid for governor. Now both races are seemingly wide open.
Candidates in the U.S. Senate race are:
- Pinnacle Bancorp chairman Sid Dinsdale (R)
- Lawyer Bart McLeay (R)
- Businessman and former state treasurer Shane Osborn (R)
- Midland University president Ben Sasse (R)
- Custer County cattle rancher Jim Jenkins (I)
- Lincoln businessman Todd Watson (I)
While he can’t say who or when, Nebraska Democratic Party chair Vince Powers believes his party will field a candidate for Senate. “While it’s true we don’t have an announced candidate, our prospects are much, much better than if we were talking in January,” Powers said.
Candidates for governor are:
- Chuck Hassebrook (D), former executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs
- State Sen. Tom Carlson (R)
- State Auditor Mike Foley (R)
- State Sen. Charlie Janssen (R)
- State Sen. Beau McCoy (R)
- Businessman Pete Ricketts (R)
State Sen. Annette Dubas (D) dropped out of the governor's race in November, citing the toll the race was taking on her and her family.
With three state senators in the gubernatorial race, Hibbing said the limit on two four-year Unicameral terms, which took full effect in 2006, is impacting this election.
“So that means that a lot of people are rotating out of office, they cannot seek reelection,” Hibbing said. “Some of them like politics and think they can do a good job, think they can contribute, so they’d be looking around for another position. People are saying there’s so many players involved and changing faces. I’m a little bit surprised there aren’t more in some respects, given the number of state legislators who are being term limited out.”
Nebraska Republican Party executive director Bud Synhorst points out there are also 17 open seats in the Unicameral in the upcoming election.
“This is probably the first time, really, that we’ve had so much going on with so many different races and so many open seats,” Synhorst said. “It’s just the reality of term limits.”
With the primary months away, there’s still time for others who may be interested to jump into the races for governor and Senate. But Powers and Synhorst said there are advantages for those candidates already running.
“Unfortunately the modern political campaign requires you to get in early so that you can get your name recognition, you can meet your donors, you can build an organization,” Powers said.
“I think it’s important for people, especially in the big statewide races, to get in as early as possible when those seats are open,” Synhorst added. “Because the summer offers a great opportunity to get out into communities throughout our state, participate in county fairs and festivals and parades and all of those types of things. And it’s an opportunity for voters to start to get to know who you are and what you’re about as a candidate."
In a year like this, do major party leaders work behind the scenes to promote certain candidates over others, clear the field for a candidate, or encourage a candidate to move from one race to another?
“We’re not like a baseball team where the manager says, ‘hey second base, get out there,’ The great thing about politics is that the candidates can say, ‘what do my skill sets do?’” Vince Powers, Nebraska Democratic Party chair
“From the party perspective, we operate under the philosophy that our job is not to pick winners and losers. Our job is to recruit good candidates at all levels and give the voters a good choice in the primary. I know you’ve probably heard the governor say many times, a good spirited primary in the Republican primary is very good, and we believe that too. But the party is not dictating who’s running where. We really don’t have the power to say, ‘you should run or you shouldn’t,’ or ‘you have to run or you can’t run.’ That’s all internal decisions for them personally.” Bud Synhorst, Nebraska Republican Party executive director
“It’s difficult to run a statewide race even in a small population state like Nebraska these days,” Hibbing said. “So you do need to get that organization going even if you maybe haven’t come out full bore, to let people know you’re a candidate. There is a lot of prep work that’s involved, but I don’t think that means that it’s beyond the pale that people couldn’t join fairly late and do a respectable job, especially if it’s somebody who already has some name recognition.”
University of Nebraska at Kearney political scientist Peter Longo said it’s possible some of the current candidates won’t still be running by the May primary.
"As we settle into kind of an electoral cycle I’m sure candidates will carefully evaluate where they stand with voters and perhaps you’ll see some say, 'I’ve made my statement, perhaps it’s time for me to pull back,'” Longo said.
With almost weekly announcements or rumors of whose running, or not running, it’s been a chaotic start to the 2014 election year.
“I view this as a good sign for Nebraska,” Longo said. “Apathy is oftentimes manifested by lack of participants in the electoral process. To have an apathetic citizenry really destroys democracy. So I think it’s a good opportunity for all citizens to perhaps not be critical but yet be thankful that so many people are willing to give up job opportunities to serve in higher office.”
“You could call it a wild one,” Longo added, “but I view it with great hope and I’m encouraged that so many people are interested in running for elected office.”