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Rarer Than a Unicorn: We Find a Nervous GOP House Incumbent

4 years ago
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PAPILLION, Neb. – Affable six-term Congressman Lee Terry looked up from his pork chop and sauerkraut at a Catholic Church festival (St. Columbkille Parish) to explain why he is facing a formidable challenge in November. "The district has shifted and Tom White is a credible opponent," Terry said as we sat on picnic benches in a light Sunday afternoon drizzle. "On the face of it, it looks pretty good if you're the other side."
This is a campaign season when dozens of skittish Democratic House incumbents – if they were willing to be candid with a tape recorder running – would say roughly the same thing. But Terry is a Republican running from an Omaha-based congressional district in what many pollsters believe will be a history-making GOP year. While Terry is decidedly favored in November, the Obama White House is hopeful enough to send Joe Biden to Omaha next week to hold a fund-raiser for Tom White, a state legislator and lawyer.
It is impossible to pick up a newspaper, click on a cable news channel or scan a political Web site without being told with absolute certainty that 2010 will be a tidal-wave election like 1994 (the Gingrich Revolution) and 2006 (the Pelosi Uprising). In epic years like these, party labels virtually are all that matter – and the best thing that an incumbent from the out-of-favor party can do is to lash himself to the mast and hope for the best.
But what if (avert your eyes: heretical notion ahead) the Republican wave crests too early and 2010 turns out to be a less decisive election than expected? What if politics is not an algorithm – and statistical models fail to fully account for human factors like candidate quality and campaign tactics? What if Tip O'Neill was half right – and some politics is indeed local?
The battle in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District could be a counter-intuitive indicator that helps determine whether the Republicans gain the 39 seats needed to take control of the House. If the Democrats win a few GOP-held seats (Dan Lungren in California, Hawaii's Charles Djou and Louisiana's Joseph Cao are other endangered incumbents), it could make the Republican's take-over arithmetic daunting.
Over breakfast Sunday morning, I asked Tom White how he possibly hoped to prevail when most Democratic strategists in Washington were perched on window ledges wondering whether to jump now or be conservative and wait until November. "Part of the fun of being isolated in Nebraska," White said with a dry wit, "is being isolated in Nebraska."
With a state unemployment rate in August of 4.6 percent (the third lowest in the nation, thanks to a booming agricultural economy) and Omaha itself at just 4.9 percent, the 2nd District has been spared much of the I'll-never-work-again despair that shapes politics in most of America.
As Lee Terry knows all too well, he represents the most hotly contested individual congressional district in the 2008 presidential election. Because Nebraska awards an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district, the Obama campaign mounted a successful crusade to pluck off a surprise pickup in a state that has been stoutly Republican in presidential politics since 1964. Terry, whose victory margin was held to 52 percent amid the Obama upset, acknowledged with blunt honesty that the Democrats "had one heck of a ground game that got people registered and practically eliminated the Republican advantage in the district."
Comparatively inexpensive ad rates (about $75,000 a week for 1,000 gross rating points) allow White (who had $532,000 cash on hand at the June) to be competitive with the incumbent (who had $787,000 in the bank) on Omaha television. Both candidates, who went on the air late last month, have each committed to buying at least $400,000 in additional TV time before November. Terry plans to press his financial advantage through radio advertising and sending out about 300,000 mailings. For example, even though both candidates are anti-abortion in this roughly 40-percent Catholic district, the Terry campaign is readying a special direct-mail piece aimed at pro-life Democrats.
Two elements make the TV narrative here in the Omaha area slightly different than the cookie-cutter national norms. Because of the comparatively low local unemployment rate, the economic crisis that both candidates decry is the national debt rather than lost jobs. A Terry spot slammed his opponent for supporting the economic stimulus and the overall goals of the Obama health-care bill and claimed, as a result, that the difference between the two candidates was "2 trillion dollars" and that White intended to pay for it "with higher taxes and more debt." White's first ad began with the candidate starring directly into the camera and declaring, "When you look at the debt that both parties in Washington keep piling on our kids, it's just wrong."
White never identifies himself as a Democrat. Instead, in his ads he is vaguely identified as "a different kind of leader for Nebraska" and "Nebraska independence for Congress." Asked about a lack of a party label in his ads, White said candidly, "This is not a year where that's effective. Nor is it ever. You have to understand in my whole career, I have never run as a Democrat. The legislature is entirely non-partisan."
A national Republican strategist calls the 2008 bank bailout vote "the one symbol of anti-incumbency that has a chance of working against incumbent Republicans." Small wonder that Tom White has gone after his rival for his vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in an ad that claims "Washington politicians like Lee Terry . . . voted for wasteful spending like the Wall Street bailout." Asked about the TARP vote, Terry said, "I really thought it would cost me the [2008] election."
White -- who gives thoughtful answers to most questions and invokes the memory of Depression-era Nebraska Republican populist George Norris – was difficult to pin down as I pressed him on what, to my mind, is bailout flimflam. "I don't deny that saving the financial system was critical," he said with a bit of inadvertent understatement. "It was and it did. But what was done was done very poorly – and, of course, it was done under the Bush administration. And they did not control where that money went . . . There's a lot to legitimately criticize about TARP and his vote, while still recognizing the necessity of saving the financial system." Parse that answer – if you can.
Candidates matter – and even Washington Republican strategists admit that Tom White is the kind of moderate Democrat who could win this congressional district. Lee Terry, in contrast, has seen his victory margins dwindle throughout the decade. While all the odds favor the GOP incumbent in year like 2010, this is a district that – just like 2008 – holds the potential for a contrarian, against-the-grain Democratic upset.

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