WASHINGTON — Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and his Democratic challenger, Paul Theobald, have different takes on the economic situation currently facing Nebraska’s sprawling and largely rural 3rd District.
Theobald points to median incomes below national levels, a hurting agricultural sector and counties that have lost population since Smith took office in 2007.
“What has he done about that?” Theobald said.
Smith, meanwhile, says that Republican actions to roll back regulations and cut taxes have prompted a wave of opportunity and that the district is poised to grow.
“I truly believe that workers are better off today than they were a year ago, definitely two years ago,” Smith said.
Smith has represented the deep-red district for more than a decade, voting reliably with GOP colleagues. That includes support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, which Smith says is responsible for higher premiums and fewer choices.
Theobald, a professor and hog farmer, says he unapologetically supports a “Medicare-for-all” system.
“Our health care system is designed to maximize the profits of corporate shareholders,” Theobald said. “What we need is a health care system designed to maximize the health and well-being of American citizens.”
He said that pharmaceutical companies are gouging people with high drug prices and that the health insurance industry wants to go back to excluding people with pre-existing conditions.
For his part, Smith rejects the Medicare-for-all approach as costly and too restrictive on people’s ability to seek care outside of the government system.
Theobald wants to immediately raise the federal minimum wage, preferably to $15 an hour. Smith opposes that, saying it would result in fewer jobs available.
“That’s not what workers need,” Smith said. “Workers need a strong economy where they have competing job offers. That’s what I would prefer, and we have that right now.”
Theobald faces a substantial fundraising disadvantage in the race. Smith’s campaign had more than $1 million cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period, while Theobald’s had $19,000.
Theobald said he’s tried to get the incumbent to commit to debates without success. Smith said he will debate but said the campaigns still need to work out the details.
Smith touted the impact of the Republican tax overhaul he helped craft as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He said he fought to preserve the deductibility of property taxes on farmland.
The overhaul has produced results and a rising tide that will lift all ships, Smith said.
Theobald criticized the tax bill and said there’s plenty of evidence that the way to stimulate the economy is from the bottom, not the top.
Among Theobald’s priorities would be overhauling college loan programs to help address the expense of higher education.
Smith talked about the importance of the pending farm bill and proposals he’s offered on workforce development.
Those measures require more evidence that government assistance programs are proving successful in getting people back into jobs.
“Employers tell me all across the 3rd District that they need employees,” Smith said.
Theobald acknowledged the challenge of selling proposals such as Medicare for all in a conservative district.
But he’s hoping to be successful by focusing on health care and the economic challenges facing agriculture now — challenges complicated by the Trump administration’s trade policies.
“There has never been a president who has been as openly hostile to rural America as this one,” Theobald said.
He added that Smith hasn’t done enough to deter President Donald Trump when it comes to trade.
“He’s approached it the way he’s approached all 12 years of his tenure in Congress,” Theobald said. “He keeps his head down. He says as little as possible, doesn’t want to rile anybody up and in effect is not doing his job. He’s not representing the people of Nebraska.”
Smith pointed to his work years ago on a specific issue affecting pork exports to Colombia. He said he’s taken a public position against the tariffs and called for swift resolution of the trade uncertainty.
He pointed to a resolution he introduced calling for the start of bilateral discussion with Japan, which has high tariffs on U.S. beef. He said he’s glad to see more people opposed to tariffs than in the past.
But why not pass a law forcing the president to change course?
Smith said that the president would refuse to sign such a law and that he hopes the substantive discussions now going on will ultimately produce more trade and benefit everyone.
“I think we can actually end up in a better place,” Smith said.