POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 31, 2013
OMAHA, Neb. >> Nebraska has not elected a Democrat to the House of Representatives since 1994, and until this month, prospects for changing that were dim at best. Of the state's three House seats, a Democrat has a fighting chance only in the district encompassing Omaha and its suburbs. And the party's sole hope there, Omaha's popular City Council president, had declared that he was not going to run.
But suddenly, the council president, Pete Festersen, has jumped into the 2014 race against an eight-term incumbent Republican. And a Lincoln lawyer, Dennis Crawford, declared his candidacy in a second Nebraska district where the Republican incumbent also had been unopposed. Both say their moves are fueled by popular anger over the 16-day Republican-led shutdown of the federal government.
"If I ever see Ted Cruz, all I'm going to say is, 'Thank you, thank you,'" Vince Powers, Nebraska's Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview. "I would've been in witness protection, because I didn't have anybody to run."
Here and nationally, the Democratic Party is enjoying something of a boomlet in newly declared candidacies for the House. Since Oct. 1, five candidates have lined up to contest Republican-held seats, with at least four more in the wings, Democratic officials say. Almost all say they are driven to run -- ostensibly, at least -- by disgust over the shutdown, first espoused by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and embraced by Tea Party Republicans in the House and, eventually, most others as well. Nonetheless, most of the Republicans viewed as most vulnerable are moderates, not those who pushed for the shutdown.
Festersen, 42, a business consultant, said he was driven to run by "the dysfunction, the widespread dissatisfaction with Congress' inability to get anything done."
In Arkansas, former Mayor Patrick Henry Hays of Little Rock announced his race for the seat of Rep. Tim Griffin, a Republican who is retiring, by denouncing the shutdown as a travesty. Last Thursday, Bill Hughes Jr., a former federal prosecutor, opened his challenge to a New Jersey incumbent, Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, by railing against what he called the Republicans' "irresponsible brinksmanship" in closing down the government.
And Wednesday, Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer who narrowly lost a 2010 bid for governor, entered a special election race to fill the House seat of Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Republican who died at 82 on Oct. 18. He had announced his retirement the week before.
"I, like everybody else I know, is angry and mad about the logjam, about shutting down the government, about not understanding the impact it was going to have on small businesses and people," she said in an interview with The Tampa Bay Times announcing her decision.
All but Crawford are viewed as credible contenders in next November's election, said David Wasserman, a top analyst of House races for The Cook Political Report in Washington.
"The climate for candidates to jump into races has improved significantly," he said. "Who knows whether they would have run had the shutdown not occurred? But the fact is, they're running."
By themselves, victories by the new entrants would hardly dent the Republicans' 17-seat House majority. But should voters' low regard for the shutdown provoke a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment next fall, their candidates could prove important to Democrats' hopes for regaining control, some analysts say.
Republicans say they are unimpressed. Since Oct. 1, five Republican candidates have announced challenges to Democrats, said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Others call the Democrats' giddiness premature. "We're 13 months away from an election," said J.L. Spray, Nebraska's Republican Party chairman. "There are going to be a lot of people talking about other issues."
As for anger over the shutdown, he added, "My people aren't clamoring about anything."
But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits candidates and funnels money into races it deems winnable, says that the shutdown will push others to enter 2014 House races within weeks. In Indiana and in other districts in Arkansas and New Jersey, other Democrats are publicly signaling their intentions to run for Republican seats next year. Almost all cite the shutdown and Republicans' threat to provoke a default on the federal debt as a crucial factor in their calculations.
The Democratic campaign committee conducted polls in districts where potential candidates "had shut the door" on running, its chairman, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, said in an interview. "I showed that same polling to those same candidates," he said, "and they opened the door."
Should the latest Democratic challengers win election next year, Tea Party legislators and their most ardent allies are unlikely to suffer as much as moderates. A handful of seats held by far-right Republicans are being contested -- or are likely to be -- by the new Democratic entrants, most notably those of Michigan's Kerry Bentivolio, Indiana's Jackie Walorski and Griffin of Arkansas.
For the most part, however, "the Democrats who are getting into these races aren't running against the fire-breathers," said Wasserman of the Cook Report. "They're running against Republicans in semi-marginal districts."
Nebraska's second district, where Festersen is running, is a prime example. The 51-year-old incumbent, Lee Terry, is a generally moderate Republican who has boasted of working with Democrats on legislation like a federally mandated increase in average fuel efficiency for automobiles.
He has kept his seat since 1998, often handily defeating well-financed Democratic challengers. But his margins of victory have dwindled in recent years, and in 2012 he beat a popular Democratic challenger by barely 4,000 of the 263,000-plus votes cast. He also lost the editorial backing of the conservative and influential Omaha World-Herald, which complained that his leadership had been undistinguished.
Like many other Republicans, Terry lined up behind Cruz's strategy to shut down the government and force a default should the Affordable Health Care Act not be defunded. Unlike more conservative Republicans, he voted to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling when that strategy failed.
But voters next year may remember him best for a mid-shutdown gaffe in an interview with The World-Herald. Asked whether he would continue to accept his $174,000-a-year salary while furloughed federal workers went without theirs, Terry replied, "Dang straight," adding: "I've got a nice house and a kid in college, and I'll tell you we cannot handle it."
Other legislators from both parties had said they would not surrender their pay, but hardly in such vivid language. Terry quickly recanted, saying he was ashamed of his remarks and would not collect his salary until the shutdown ended.
With the electorate already hopping mad, Terry's comment may have poured gasoline on the fire. But political analysts say he and other Republicans still may have two things going for them: One, next year's elections are midterms, when the party in the White House usually suffers losses and voter turnout is reliably low. And two: Even the experts cannot predict how angry voters will express themselves.
"This is a screwed-up situation," said Tom King, a consultant working for the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia in next week's election. "When this happens, 'throw the bums out' either becomes 'throw everyone out,' or 'throw one party out.'"
Which is more likely? "Look at the results two weeks from now," he said, referring to Election Day, "and you'll get a better idea of how this is breaking."