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Republican Prospects Strong in Nebraska

By CQ Staff

(CQ, April 25) -- Nebraska Republicans have several blue-chip, well-financed candidates for the governorship and the Omaha-based 2nd District.The result is that GOP victors of the May 12 primaries will be favored to seize the governor's mansion vacated by term-limited Democrat Ben Nelson and retain the 2nd District seat left open by two-term Rep. Jon Christensen, a candidate for governor.

"The Democrats are really in bad shape in the state," said Robert F. Sittig, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "Everywhere you look, it seems that Nebraska is contributing to the regional and national Republican upswing."

The GOP gubernatorial contest in Nebraska is a bank-breaking affair involving well-known candidates from each major faction of government -- federal (Christensen), state (auditor John Breslow) and local (Lincoln Mayor Mike Johanns).

The trio has shattered state records for primary campaign spending. From January 1997 to April 7, 1998, they spent more than $4.2 million combined on their campaigns, or 26 times the $163,000 spent by the two chief Democratic candidates.

Breslow, a wealthy owner of a chain of welding supply stores, has dominated the spending war with expenditures of $2.4 million, most of it from his own pocket.

But Christensen is still seen as the front-runner. A close ally of religious conservatives, the lawmaker surprised many political observers by blindsiding incumbent Democrat Peter Hoagland in 1994 and crushing a credible Democratic opponent in 1996. A prolific fundraiser who did not enter the race until September 1997, Christensen reported $930,000 in spending.

Johanns, mayor of the capital city since 1991, has hopscotched the state's 93 counties during the last 30 months, logging nearly 100,000 miles. He has spent $855,000 on his campaign.

Candidate-commissioned polls show no runaway favorite and about a fifth of the electorate remains undecided. Many of those voters live in the vast western 3rd District, a keystone for any statewide campaign strategy since it typically accounts for 40 percent of the vote.

The primary winner will face either ex-gubernatorial aide Bill Hoppner, the presumed Democratic front-runner who lost the 1990 primary to Nelson by 42 votes, or former state Sen. James McFarland, a onetime professional football player.

A multicandidate GOP primary also is the main event in the race for the 2nd District, which encompasses Omaha and its suburbs.The district has treated Democrats fairly well, with the party holding the seat for 10 of the past 21 years, including the tenure of three-term moderate Hoagland. But Republican Bob Dole carried the conservative district by 15 percentage points in the 1996 presidential race.

The GOP front-runner has been Lee Terry, a seven-year Omaha city councilman, and the son of a former local newscaster who himself was the GOP nominee in 1976.

Steve Kupka, formerly the chief of staff to Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, the 2nd District Republican congressman from 1981 to 1989, has been running hard. As of March 31, Kupka had raised $282,000 and had $100,000 in the bank, compared with Terry's $233,000 raised and $77,000 cash on hand.

The other two major Republican candidates are businessman Brad Kuiper, who has been actively courting religious conservatives, and Bellevue School Board President Pat Jones.

Whoever emerges May 12 will be a solid favorite over likely Democratic nominee Michael Scott, a black political novice who enjoys widespread name recognition from his former career as an Omaha television anchor.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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