It could be the David and Goliath story of the 2018 election.
David, played by term-limited state Senator Bob Krist of Omaha faces off with Goliath, the Philistine intimidator played by incumbent Governor Pete Ricketts. The battle seems inevitable; it’s only a matter of timing. Will it happen during the May primary in the Republican Camp? Or will it come in the November general election with David arising from another camp, perhaps a new camp?
Krist, a moderate Republican to the point of being a Centrist in the spirit of Ben Nelson, has remained a leader in the Nebraska Legislature despite diminished power inflicted by the infamous Gang of 27 conservative Republicans this session. He managed to collaborate with other moderates and the Democrats to defy the Gang and nip at Goliath’s heels by helping derail parts of the giant’s agenda. Now he wants to go for the giant’s job.
The big question is how to do it. Change parties, go head-to-head in a Republican camp that isn’t as moderate as it once was, or start a new party. Changing parties has worked for some, albeit if only for a short time for guys like Brad Ashford who went from Republican to Democrat to serve one term in Congress. Starting a new party worked for the Populists in the 1890s, but they later joined with the Democrats. The head-to-head option would be costly given Ricketts deep pockets and outside support from a cadre of political action committees.
Krist should be admired for pushing what he calls “a centrist approach to governing.” The challenge comes in getting others to sign on to help. There are 574,000 Republicans, 360,000 Democrats and 241,000 Independents registered in Nebraska. There are also Libertarians, Green Party, Reform Party, Unity Party and Nebraska Party/Constitution Party of America members.
Would a new party just muddy the waters? Could the Independents be expected to support a new candidate or simply exercise their option to pick and choose from both sides of the imaginary aisle?
Thanks to LB34, passed by lawmakers on a 48-0 vote this session, it only takes 10,000 members to form a new party. The question is, are there 10,000 people upset enough with the Ricketts’ administration and/or the lack of property tax relief to form that new party and fight to elect a candidate? That’s the stuff of which politics is made.
I applaud Krist for saying he wants to focus on unity and problem solving rather than Republican or Democrat partisanship or party dogma by directly addressing the issues that are most important to Nebraskans. I would have given such lofty goals a fighting chance before the Gang of 27 assembled last December – before the 105th Legislature convened – and decided how their conservative agenda was going to rule the day by getting certain people elected to lead certain committees.
That gut punch to non-partisanship had a ripple effect that dominated the session and was second only to the chilling effect that Ricketts’-funded targeting of fellow Republican senators who were ousted while he bought the best Legislature he could. I’ve said it before, but the line between the executive and legislative branches of government has been greatly blurred, if not erased.
So, let’s review. The Republican Krist will complete his 10th and final year in the nonpartisan Legislature next year. He said he wants to run for the job currently held by incumbent Republican Ricketts. The question is how to do that, given that Republican incumbents have the advantage in Nebraska provided they haven’t crossed Governor Deep Pockets. Ricketts has already announced his candidacy. The Democrats, as usual, are looking for somebody to run.
Krist plans a statewide “listening tour” in August. He hopes to hear: how people feel about the incumbent; how people feel about the issues; how people feel about his proposed candidacy. But he also hopes to hear the sound of checks being written, of cash being folded and stuffed in his pockets and of financial pledges being made. Depending on the outcome, he will likely make his decision and announce it around Labor Day.
It’s his call and I wish him well. Nebraskans need some options.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.