Hastings-area race highlights some themes of legislative elections

Sen. Les Seiler listens to challenger Steve Halloran at a Hastings candidates' forum. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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October 26, 2016 - 6:45am

Half the seats in the Nebraska Legislature are up for grabs this election. Each race is different – but there are some common themes.


Outside, a cool fall morning mist cloaks the Good Samaritan Society’s retirement village in Hastings. But inside the community center, the air hums with talk of the hot legislative race here.

The incumbent is Sen. Les Seiler, the 75-year-old chairman of the Legislature’s judiciary and prison oversight committees. And though the Legislature is officially nonpartisan, Seiler is a registered Republican.

But in the primary, Republican governor Pete Ricketts endorsed Seiler’s Republican challenger, Steve Halloran. At the candidate’s forum, a man brings up Rickett’s opposition to Seiler.

“What did you do to step on his toes, Les?” he asked.

“I voted four times the wrong way, I guess,” Seiler replied, as the audience laughs.

Seiler is referring to four Ricketts’ vetoes he voted to override, on bills to raise the gas tax for road construction, to let children brought to the country illegally get drivers’ licenses and professional licenses, and to abolish the death penalty.

“I think he doesn’t like my votes. He also doesn’t like the fact that I stood up to him. He wants to have a puppet so he can tell them how to vote,” Seiler said.

Seiler’s opponent, Steve Halloran, is a 68-year-old restaurant owner and farm manager. Halloran says he would do a better job representing the conservative views of the district, and would work on lowering property taxes and reforming school funding.

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For NET News "Classroom Conversations" on the death penalty vote, click here.

With Ricketts’ endorsement, Halloran outpolled Seiler in the primary election, 62 to 38 percent. (For all Nebraska 2016 primary results, click here.) Now in the general election runoff, Halloran brushes aside the idea that Ricketts would tell him what to do.

“I think what the population or the constituents need to understand is that those that know me very well would say just contrary to that – not that Steve’s a contrarian but he’s nobody’s yes man,” Halloran said.

Seiler says Ricketts opposition to him is just part of a bigger political picture.

“It’s not just our district. There’s about six, seven districts all across the state of Nebraska that he’s trying to influence the outcome so that he’s got a veto-free regime,” Seiler said.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor “supports candidates who share his conservative principles and believe in helping taxpayers keep more of the dollars they earn.” Gage says Ricketts supports Republicans running against Democrats; a couple of Republicans running against fellow Republicans in districts where the incumbent’s not on the ballot; and in addition to Halloran, one other Republican challenger --Bruce Bostelman -- to a Republican incumbent -- Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo. Like Seiler, Johnson also voted to override Ricketts on the gas tax increase and license issues. Like Seiler, he finished second in the primary.

Halloran says his primary win makes some legislative lobbyists unhappy, because they aren’t used to dealing with successful challengers.

“They told me Steve, we’ve got to keep giving our funds our finances to Sen. Seiler the incumbent because we’ve got too much invested in him,” Halloran said.

From the beginning of last year through Oct. 4, Seiler’s campaign reported nearly $50,000 in contributions from groups including the highway lobby, realtors, trial attorneys and the state teachers union. By contrast, Halloran’s collected only about $5,000, from groups including tobacco and insurance interests, and coops. 

But Halloran has also benefited from another, less traceable kind of spending during this campaign. The group Americans for Prosperity is mailing out flyers criticizing Seiler for voting to raise the gas tax. But as a so-called social welfare group not primarily engaged in political campaigning, the group does not have to report where its money comes from, or how much it’s spending.

Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission Executive Director Frank Daley says such groups typically create advertising that doesn’t fit the definition of campaigning, but rather, run “issue ads.”

“An issue ad is a type of ad that either says something very, very positive about a candidate, based upon his or her record, or says something very, very negative about a candidate based upon his or her record, but never actually mentions the fact that he or she is a candidate; never actually mentions the fact that there is an election day pending, and never actually suggests that someone ought to vote for or against that candidate,” Daley said.

Seiler told the candidates’ forum that’s an unfair loophole that lets rich people make tax-deductible contributions used to influence political races.

“It makes no sense unless you’re a multimillionaire that you can avoid huge amounts of taxes and still try and get what you want,” he said.

Halloran told the forum he has no contact with the outside groups advertising in the race, and doesn’t want any.

"That being said, I think what needs to be judged on these flyers that may come out on any candidate is how truthful they are,” he said.

Americans For Prosperity could not be reached for comment. Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor has not contributed to the group.

In addition to the Seiler-Halloran and Bostelman-Johnson races, 23 other legislative seats are on the ballot across the state. (For a sample ballot listing all legislative races, click here). Four of those have only one candidate. The outcome in the rest, with the dynamics of outside groups vs. lobbyists spending, registered Democrats vs. registered Republicans, and those supported by the governor vs. those opposed by him, will determine the composition of the Legislature for the next two years.

Editor's note: After this story was produced, Americans for Prosperity Nebraska issued a statement declaring that it regularly informs the public of positions elected officials take, and that it is funded by donors who share its commitment to make life better through economic freedom. 

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