On May 15, Nebraska Republicans will conclude one of those classic clashes in their U.S. Senate primary that one reads a lot about these days — between tea party-backed outsiders and the Republican “establishment.” Such clashes, the punditocracy warns, will lead to lasting intraparty scars and, possibly, a resulting Democratic win in the fall.
But the good news in the Cornhusker State is that it doesn’t matter how hard-fought the primary between State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Attorney General Jon Bruning is or how incendiary it gets in the next two weeks. Polls show either Republican front-runner in the four-candidate primary handily winning the open Senate seat over the certain Democratic nominee, former Sen. (1988-2000) Bob Kerrey — who has lived and voted in New York for many years before returning to Nebraska earlier this year to launch his political comeback.
The seat being relinquished by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson is considered one of two certain to flip to the Republican column this fall and help the GOP turn the current Democratic advantage of 53-to-47 seats into a Republican majority. The other seat considered likely to change hands is that of retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
Initially Bruning appeared to have everything going for him. The former state senator and present attorney general raised the most money, was considered the favorite of the party “establishment,” and evinced clear drive and ambition. In 2008, he seemed on course to run for the seat of then-Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel until the incumbent dropped out and Bruning deferred to popular former Gov. (now Sen.) Mike Johanns.
But in this race, Stenberg has begun to effectively use what he characterizes as Bruning’s votes against Johanns. As state senator, Stenberg charges, Bruning broke with the then-governor to vote for legislation that would have raised the state sales tax and resulted in an increase in state property taxes. The Omaha World-Herald (May 3, 2001) quoted the governor as “blasting lawmakers” who supported the measure and denouncing it as a “double hit” to taxpayers.
Stenberg has also slammed his opponent on the issue of Big Government. Specifically, he cited Bruning’s public blessing of the $4 million from the Obama stimulus package that was used to train extra police officers. Of the additional federal funds, the state’s top lawman said: “The additional support is important to maintain the quality of life we enjoy in our state.” (Omaha World-Herald, July 29, 2009).
During a recent visit to Washington, Stenberg contrasted the administration of the Nebraska attorney general’s office in his tenure (1990-2002) before Bruning assumed the office in 2002. During his first year in the job (1990-91), Stenberg recalled, the total expenditures of the office were $3,685, 593 but that at the end of Bruning’s second term (2010-11), the office expenditures were $9,711, 589.
Stenberg also brought up a story that is well-known among Nebraska Republicans: How Bruning, as a law student at the University of Nebraska’s Lincoln College of Law, wrote an essay for the college newspaper criticizing Ronald Reagan and denouncing trickle-down economics as a “farce.” When we noted that many conservatives once held liberal views and that Bruning acknowledged these were his opinions before he started a family and was working, Stenberg countered that “these certainly weren’t views I had by the time I was in law school” and that Bruning’s other not-so-doctrinaire actions of taxes and spending were good reasons to choose a more proven conservative.
Bruning backers point out that their man has the backing of numerous national conservatives, notably Mike Huckabee. Stenberg supporters remonstrate that their man has the backing of tea party Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.
It’s a hard-fought primary all right. But, in contrast to similar contests nationwide, national Republican operatives aren’t worried. Whoever wins May 15, in their view, will be the best man — because, they feel, he will surely win in November.