Running on an anti-tax theme in a heavily Republican district is seldom a bad idea — a tenet borne out by state Sen. Adrian Smith’s victory Tuesday in the GOP primary for Nebraska’s open 3rd District seat.
Smith’s win appears to put him on the fast track to fill the House seat left open by three-term Republican Rep. Tom Osborne, who fell short in his primary challenge to Republican Gov. Dave Heineman. While Democratic officials say they will fight for the open seat, the Republican nominee normally enjoys the initiative in a sprawling, heavily rural district that gave President Bush 75 percent of its votes in 2004.
Smith, who had 39 percent of the votes with most ballots counted, held conservative views that did not differ greatly from those of his two main rivals, former Osborne aide John Hanson (29 percent) and Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek (28 percent).
But Smith ran with the endorsement of the national political action committee Club for Growth, which helped him in two major ways: It gave him the imprimatur of the most fiscally conservative candidate, and it helped boost him to the top of the campaign fundraising competition.
Smith emphasized his opposition to government spending and dedication to lowering taxes throughout the campaign. But he also sought to avoid being labeled a one-issue candidate, contending that “no one single issue determined the campaign.”
Smith pointed to his campaign’s agricultural advisory committee as a particular example of this philosophy. He noted that it played an important role in relaying his farm policy to voters. Smith also contends that health care and energy issues played an important role in the campaign, and said having voted on those issues in the legislature set him apart from the other candidates.
He also played down the importance of his fundraising lead, noting that “one-on-one meetings are valuable” and stating that “grass-roots definitely played an important role in the campaign.”
Apart from the Club for Growth’s backing, he was aided by key endorsements from the anti-abortion Nebraska Right to Life and the Nebraska United for Life PACs and the National Rifle Association. Additionally, Smith received the endorsements from 16 senator colleagues in the state’s unicameral legislature.
Hanson drew attention for his service as Osborne’s agriculture director for the district. But he had to perform a difficult balancing act, trying to escape Osborne’s shadow while promoting his experience as Osborne’s aide and seeking to have the congressman’s personal popularity rub off on him. His hopes for the latter were set back when Osborne opted for neutrality in the race, despite rumors that he would endorse Hanson.
Vavricek found himself limited geographically in the contest. Though he came in with a base in Grand Island, the 3rd District’s largest city, he proved unable to rally support across the district.
Smith now heads into the general election against Yale-educated rancher Scott Kleeb, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. Kleeb has a strategy that combines an emphasis on his family’s deep roots in rural western Nebraska with a strategy to appeal to the district’s expanding Hispanic population and to growing communities along the Interstate 80 corridor, which touches cities such as Grand Island, Kearney and North Platte.