LINCOLN (AP) — Nebraska's population has steadily shifted over the decades from rural areas and small towns to the big cities of Omaha and Lincoln, but when it comes to the governor's race, candidates from those rural regions are dominating.
The declared field so far includes Republican State Sens. Charlie Janssen of Fremont and Tom Carlson of Holdrege, who have both pointed to their backgrounds in small-town Nebraska. Falls City businessman Charles Herbster is also expected to jump into the race, as is Republican Pete Rickets — making him the only candidate from Omaha.
On the Democratic side is State Sen. Annette Dubas, a family farm-and-ranch owner from Fullerton, and Chuck Hassebrook, the executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons. One potential urban candidate, Democratic state Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, embarked on a statewide tour in June but announced earlier this month that he would not join the governor's race.
The candidates are already working to establish themselves in the overwhelmingly rural but high-turnout 3rd Congressional District. The district covers all of western and central Nebraska, as well as the northeast and southeast corners.
That focus on a vast district comes even though more than half of all Nebraskans live in one of three eastern counties: Douglas and Sarpy, encompassing Omaha and its southern suburbs, and Lancaster, which surrounds Lincoln.
“If you look at where the votes are coming from, I think that's why you see such a focus on the third district,” said Phil Young, a Lincoln political consultant who has worked on legislative, congressional and U.S. senate campaigns.
The candidates are looking to replace the term-limited Gov. Dave Heineman in a wide-open contest that hasn't existed since Heineman defeated former Husker football coach and U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne in the 2005 Republican primary. Heineman campaigned aggressively in western Nebraska on his opposition to rural school consolidation and in-state tuition rates for the children whose parents aren't legal U.S. residents. Osborn won in Lincoln and Omaha, but that was offset by Heineman's victories out west.
With no recent template in the governor's race, candidates may look to Deb Fischer's come-from-behind win in the 2012 GOP Senate primary. Fischer, who grew up in Lincoln, focused on her experience as a family ranch owner in rural Valentine and beat Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg, who both live in Lincoln.
“For Republicans, who already have a statewide constituency, the 3rd district is arguably more important than the others because there are more votes there,” said Paul Landow, a former Democratic consultant and professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “If you're a Democrat, it's virtually impossible to win statewide office without carrying both Omaha and Lincoln by a wide margin.”
Landow said Democrats Ben Nelson and Jim Exon, both elected governor and to the U.S. Senate, managed to win because both were conservative by party standards, and they weren't seen as urbanites. Nelson pointed to his upbringing in the southwest town of McCook, and Exon was born in rural South Dakota.
Would-be candidates still have time to enter the contest, but the window is shrinking for them to line up the staff they need to compete, said Mary Johnson, a Lincoln-based political consultant and lobbyist.
“We're coming up fast on Labor Day, and pretty soon people are going say, 'I've got to go. I've got to do this now,' ” she said.
Johnson said rural candidates may also be more familiar with rural water shortages, property taxes on agricultural land, and other issues that can help swing out-state votes, she said.
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