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LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman, a former executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, already is recognized as the most politically active governor in the state's recent history.
But he may be stepping up his game during this year's elections.
Midway through his second and final full term, Heineman is actively working to elect at least eight like-minded Republican candidates to the Nebraska Legislature.
He has hosted fundraisers, provided endorsements and recorded radio ads and robo calls. He's also contributed at least $6,000 to individual candidates so far and given $90,000 to the state GOP for its campaign work. In addition, Heineman is honorary chairman of a new independent political action committee working to elect Republicans.
The list of candidates backed by Heineman includes one challenger to a Republican state lawmaker, Sen. Paul Lambert of Plattsmouth, who was appointed by the governor just a year ago.
In a recent interview, the state's chief executive offered no apologies for being involved in electing candidates to a different branch of state government.
“I'm a citizen of Nebraska,” he said. “The governor is entitled to speak out on these races.”
And, Heineman added, he'll continue to do that.
The governor's activities come amid an election filled with hotly contested legislative races and after the governor suffered some significant policy losses in the officially nonpartisan Legislature this spring.
State senators overrode the governor's vetoes of legislation allowing cities to raise local sales taxes by a half-cent, with voter approval, and resuming taxpayer support of prenatal care for unborn children of illegal immigrants and other low-income women.
Heineman rejected the idea that he's more involved this fall due to the spring setbacks, although he did recently say that senators didn't deserve a pay raise because of the prenatal care vote.
Several people who follow the Legislature, and two former Republican governors, Kay Orr and Charles Thone, said there's nothing improper about a governor seeking to help elect state senators who agree with him.
“To get your programs moving, you need good legislative support,” said Thone. “One way to do that is electing people of the same philosophy who are loyal to the administration.”
But at least some lawmakers feel the scale and volume of his political activities are improper.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, a Democrat, said past governors, unlike Heineman, have limited their involvement in state legislative elections to endorsements and campaign appearances. Heineman, meanwhile, is “going out of his way” to inject party politics into the nonpartisan races by supporting only GOP candidates.
“It's unprecedented for a governor to play such an active role,” Mello said. “If he wants to get something done, he needs to pick up the phone and build relationships.”
Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, a Republican who was appointed by Heineman and has differed on some policies since then, said it's wrong for the governor or fellow senators to seek to influence legislative races by “hiding behind” independent political action committees.
Last week, a new independent PAC, the Nebraska Leadership Committee, was formed with Heineman as its honorary chairman. That group has already mailed out fliers in support of one legislative candidate, Jerry Johnson of Wahoo, a Republican, and another attacking Democrat Rick Kolowski, who is running in a west Omaha district against Acela Turco, a Republican endorsed by Heineman.
Heineman could not be reached Friday to comment on the new PAC, according to a spokeswoman. The governor has more than $1 million in cash in his own campaign committee, and there has been speculation that he'll spend that through the new PAC.
But Jim Barnes, the group's president, said Heineman would not be contributing money. The governor's role, Barnes said, will be as lead fundraiser for the group, whose purpose is to elect Republicans to the Legislature.
“From my experience, many governors are involved in many states in their state legislative races,” said Barnes, who worked in all 50 states as the former head of the national Republican State Leadership Committee.
Krist said he's considering legislation that would bar Nebraska elected officials from contributing to such independent PACs.
“Spend your own money. Put it out there,” he said. “Don't hide behind a PAC.”
There are risks for a governor who gets too deeply involved in a legislative race. What if the governor's candidate loses? Or what happens if he opposes an incumbent who is popular with colleagues, thus making them angry? That makes it harder to seek support from jilted lawmakers and their friends.
That risk may come into play in the legislative race involving Lambert, a former Plattsmouth mayor whom Heineman appointed to the Legislature a year ago.
Heineman said he dropped his support of Lambert after the freshman senator voted to overturn his veto of the half-cent sales tax bill.
The governor said that during the vetting process in filling the legislative vacancy, he asked Lambert twice — once in a questionnaire and once in the governor's office — whether he would oppose a bill allowing Omaha to increase its local sales taxes by a half-cent.
Both times, Heineman said, Lambert said he would oppose the bill.
“So, to me it's a trust issue,” the governor said, adding that Lambert's answers a year ago “made a huge difference” in his appointment.
Lambert said he respects Heineman and what he's done in office but felt that the issue he voted on in the Legislature was broader than the questions posed by the governor.
The senator said he voted in favor of the half-cent sales tax bill because it required a vote of the people before any taxes could be increased. Lambert added that mayors in his district supported the bill, so he voted for it.
“We see different sides to it,” Lambert said. “I didn't see it as an Omaha and Lincoln issue, but one for my district.”
Now Heineman is supporting Bill Kintner of Papillion in that legislative race. Kintner is the husband of Loren Kintner, the longtime head of the governor's Policy Research Office.
It should come as no surprise that Heineman is such a political animal.
His background as the former head of a political party is unique among recent governors.
In that role, Heineman quarterbacked the election of a group of conservative legislators during the Thone administration called “The Thone Clones” because they shared the same beliefs as Thone.
Heineman, according to political colleagues, is a master at the mechanics of political races and has always been involved in legislative races.
“He is more in tune with politics, how to run a race, and day-to-day political strategy, (than) anyone in the state,” said Mark Fahleson, the current executive director of the state GOP.
In contrast, Thone, as well as former Govs. Orr, Mike Johanns and Bob Kerrey, left most of the legislative politicking to others.
And former Gov. Ben Nelson, in fact, was criticized for not getting more involved in helping other Democrats get elected.
Former Gov. Jim Exon, another Democrat, was known for his party-building work but wasn't as involved in fundraising as Heineman.
Tim Becker, Nelson's former chief of staff, said that while his boss had friends he supported — including some Republicans — he tried to avoid getting too involved in legislative races because it could harm his relationship with lawmakers he later would have to work with.
Chris Peterson, a former spokesman for then Gov. Johanns, said Heineman may be more involved this year because there are numerous contested races. Seven legislative races are viewed as tossups.
Peterson said Heineman loves to be involved in the mechanics of political campaign, but governors need to be careful.
“The more races you involve yourself in and the more time you invest in those races,” he said, “the higher the stakes or consequences.”
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According to the most recent campaign reports, Gov. Dave Heineman's campaign committee, the Governor Heineman Committee, has given money to six GOP legislative candidates: Larry Zimmerman of Lincoln, $2,000; Bill Kintner of Papillion, Jerry Johnson of Wahoo and Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, $1,000 each; and Acela Turco of Omaha and Richard Carter of Bellevue, $500 each.
Heineman also hosted a fundraiser for Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy and endorsed John Murante of Gretna.
Two years ago, he campaigned for a handful of GOP candidates, but did not contribute money to them.
In 2008, he endorsed Republicans for election and contributed nearly $40,000 to GOP legislative candidates through an independent committee called Nebraskans for a Better Tomorrow. That committee, financed by Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning, was not active in 2010 or this year.