History Teaches Us That Ricketts Is Vulnerable
The modern history of Nebraska politics teaches us that an unpopular and incompetent Republican Governor is vulnerable to a challenge by a strong Democratic candidate. As we have seen, Pete Ricketts has gotten off to a shaky start as governor. He has failed to deliver on his promises of property tax relief because he has prioritized income tax cuts for the wealthy. In addition, Ricketts has been embarrassed several times in his dealings with a Republican controlled legislature. His vetoes of the death penalty repeal, drivers and professional licenses for the Dreamers, and a gas tax were all overridden with a significant number of Republican votes.
Ricketts’ poor start is reflected by the emergence of Republican State Senator Bob Krist as a serious gubernatorial candidate. Krist will be running in 2018 as an independent. The Krist challenge is a clear indicator that there is a significant level of dissatisfaction with Ricketts within Republican ranks.
In previous cycles, an intra-party challenge to an incumbent Republican governor have proven to be fatal to that governor’s re-election bid. In 1970, Norbert Tiemann was challenged in the GOP primary by a right wing opponent because Tiemann had raised taxes. Even though Tiemann was re-nominated, he was wounded by the conservative challenge.
In the fall 1970 election cycle, Jim Exon was elected governor and went on to serve two terms in that office. In addition, Exon was elected to three terms in the U.S. Senate beginning in 1978. Exon ultimately retired from the Senate in 1996 as one of Nebraska’s most revered public servants.
Twelve years later, GOP Governor Charles Thone presided over a budget crisis caused by the deepest agriculture recession in Nebraska since the Great Depression. Like Tiemann, Thone was damaged by a primary challenge from the right. That opened the door to Bob Kerrey’s upset victory over Thone in November 1982. Kerrey subsequently served one term as Governor and two terms in the U.S. Senate. Kerrey was a genuine national figure during his time in Washington.
That same historical pattern played out again in 1990. This time, after running on a no new taxes platform in 1986, GOP Governor Kay Orr funded a tax cut for the large corporations by raising taxes on the middle class. Orr compounded her political problems by denying that she had raised taxes on working families.
Even though Orr didn’t face a primary challenge in 1990, she was a wounded incumbent in that cycle. She was knocked off in the fall by a very narrow margin by Ben Nelson. The political newcomer and insurance executive served two terms as Governor and two terms in the U.S. Senate. In the Senate, Nelson supported the Affordable Care Act, the 2009 Recovery Act and Dodd-Frank. Nelson made a positive difference for millions of Americans.
We could very well see that historical pattern play itself out again in the 2018 cycle. A recent poll commissioned by the Krist campaign indicates that Ricketts is indeed vulnerable. Voters viewed the Republican party favorably by only a 43% to 40% margin. That is a surprising result in light of Nebraska’s recent history as a reliably Red State.
I believe that Pete Ricketts’ political weakness and Krist’s third party run provides a significant opening to a potential Democratic candidate. As former Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Vince Powers recently said: “2018 is the best chance for a Democrat in 20 years to be elected governor. In a three person race a Democrat needs only 40% of the vote to defeat the two conservative Republicans running for Governor. Chuck Hassebrook got 39.3 percent in 2014 and could have won in 2014 if it was a three way race vs two conservative Republicans. There is a great opportunity for a Democrat to win in 2018 if Krist can raise a significant amount of money. If Krist can get 20–25 percent of the vote, the Democrat wins.”
In light of this historical pattern and Ricketts’ weakness, I’m still hopeful the Democrats can come up with a good candidate. Exon, Kerrey and Nelson were all largely unknown when they announced and were considered to be underdogs. Nevertheless all of them won and went on to be exceptional public servants.
I believe that the 2018 cycle sets up well for the Democratic Party. The GOP and Trump are currently at record low approval levels. There is a growing frustration and anger in the country over this Republican misrule. Let’s all work hard to elect Democrat candidates in 2018. We can do this. Let’s get it done!