Omaha and Lincoln may be great places to raise cash, but when it comes to mining votes, the Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate are looking westward in the final week of the primary campaign.
All three major GOP Senate candidates plan to spend considerable time this week in western Nebraska, a GOP stronghold in the state that historically plays a decisive role in Republican primaries.
Nearly half of all Republican votes cast next Tuesday are expected to come from the state's rural-dominated 3rd Congressional District, which covers about two-thirds of Nebraska and which has a higher concentration of Republicans than either the Omaha- or Lincoln-centered districts.
“The 3rd has always been the heart of Republican territory in the state. It's the heart of conservatism in the state, so in any GOP primary, it's important,” said Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party.
Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Sen. Deb Fischer are battling for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat held by retiring Democrat Ben Nelson.
The GOP winner of the May 15 primary likely will face Democratic front-runner Bob Kerrey in the fall election.
All three Republicans plan to crisscross the state this week in a final campaign push.
Fischer will start a barnstorming spin around the state in Scottsbluff and Sidney on Monday, while Stenberg embarks on a three-day stump that starts Wednesday in Omaha, and quickly turns westward, with stops in North Platte and Chadron.
Attorney General Jon Bruning also plans to stump in the west, although his campaign schedule was unavailable Sunday, said Trent Fellers, Bruning's campaign manager.
Western Nebraska may be important for votes, but when it comes to cash, all three candidates raised a big chunk of their campaign dollars from Omaha and Lincoln, according to Open Secrets, a website that compiles and analyzes candidates' fundraising numbers.
In fact, 75 percent of the money that Stenberg raised in Nebraska came from donors who lived in the two cities, while 43 percent of Bruning's and 43 percent of Fischer's Nebraska dollars came from Omaha and Lincoln, according to the latest report compiled by Open Secrets.
But when it comes to election day, it's votes, not money, that count.
Republican voters in western Nebraska carry clout because, unlike other parts of Nebraska, they have a huge numbers advantage on their side.
Western Nebraska is solidly Republican in comparison with the politically divided Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District. Fifty-eight percent of registered voters in the 3rd District are Republican, compared with 41 percent in the Omaha-based district.
All three Republican candidates acknowledge the importance of western Nebraska and have spent considerable time in the region.
Fischer has roots in the district, having lived most of her adult life on a ranch in Valentine. She understands the area and expects to win the district, said Aaron Trost, Fischer's campaign manager.
“I think the race will actually be won or lost in the 3rd District,” Trost said.
Stenberg also expects to win the 3rd, arguing that his brand of conservatism plays well in the region.
“There is a core group of frequent Republican primary voters who traditionally support Don, and the majority of those come from the 3rd,” said Dan Parsons, Stenberg campaign spokesman.
Bruning also has been working the district hard. He argues that his agriculture record and work as attorney general will help him win the district. As the state's chief prosecutor, Bruning noted, he has filed more than two dozen lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of small towns and farmers.
“Voters in the 3rd District share my conservative values. They know I have a record of fighting to protect Nebraska's ag producers by suing the Obama administration to stop overregulation,” Bruning said.
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