Two years ago, George Bush beat John Kerry in Nebraska by a 66-33 margin. The Republican president carried all but one of the state’s counties, as Republican candidates swept to easy victories in the state’s three congressional districts.
So why has George Bush rushed to Nebraska to campaign on the eve of this year’s mid-term congressional elections? Because, amazingly, in one of the reddest of the red states, a Democrat could pick up a GOP House seat. If Nebraska falls it will almost certainly be in the face of a Democratic wave that will sweep in a Congress capable of holding to account a president who has not previously experienced the joys of being checked and balanced.
That Democrats are likely to take control of the House Tuesday is no longer news. That they might take it with a substantial enough majority to get serious about presidential accountability is what the Bush White House now fears.
The fight in Nebraska offers evidence of just how real the threat has become.
The Republicans are in trouble in the rural 3rd district of the state, which gave Bush 75 percent of the vote in 2004, At the same time reelected Republican Congressman Tom Osborne with 87 percent of the vote.
As the 2006 election approaches, however, a Democrat is actually leading in some polls of the race to replace the retiring Osborne.
No Democrat has won this Nebraska seat since 1958, in the final mid-term election of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. So how could this seat, representing a sprawling region of farms and smalltowns be so in play that the president must be called on to save the day for the Republicans?
It has something to do with issues: Even Nebraska Republicans are wary about the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war. Nebraska U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel has frequently compared the conflict to the Vietnam imbroglio, and the popular Republican’s not alone in his concerns. Also, Republican ethics problems in general, and the controversy over Florida Congressman Mark Foley’s emails to congressional pages in particular, have played especially badly for the GOP in a state that prides itself on following the rules.
But the GOP’s problem in Nebraska has a lot to do with the candidate who is challenging their party’s long-time dominance of the 3rd district. Democrat Scott Kleeb has run a remarkable grassroots campaign that has focused both on the ethics crisis created by Republican dominance of Washington and on the failure of DC politicians to protect farmers and rural economies. After years of failing to reach out to rural voters, national Democrats have recognized the strength of Kleeb’s appeal, providing the Yale-educated rancher with last-minute infusions of campaign cash for the first-time candidate’s final push in the race with Republican state Sen. Adrian Smith.
The combination’s Kleeb’s aggressive campaigning on rural issues and Republican disenchantment with Smith, who narrowly won a divisive primary, appears to be tipping the race toward the Democrat. An October 30 survey by the Democratic polling group Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates had Kleeb leading Smith by a 46 percent to 40 percent margin among likely voters.
And Kleeb has begun picking up newspaper endorsements from key papers in the state, including the Omaha World Herald.
So President Bush has been pulled out of other states where the GOP is in trouble to campaign in, of all places, Nebraska. The president will be the state Sunday, begging wandering Republican voters in the 3rd district to return to the party fold.
Bush may succeed in saving a Nebraska seat for the GOP — althopugh that is far from a certainty. But if the president and his Grand Old Party are fighting for Nebraska on the weekend before critical mid-term elections, the Republicans are in very serious trouble. Indeed, the president’s decision to schedule a trip to the state confirms just how tough this election year has become for a man and a party that used to be able to take states this red for granted.
John Nichols’ new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. “With The Genius of Impeachment,” writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, “John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States.” Studs Terkel says: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.” The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com