Incumbent Faces Challengers in Nebraska's 3rd District Republican Primary

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May 9, 2018 - 6:45am

Three Republicans are challenging incumbent Adrian Smith in Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional district GOP primary. We visit with the candidates and hear what issues are at the forefront for people in Nebraska's 3rd district as part of NET News Campaign Connection 2018 election coverage.


Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District covers more than 60 counties throughout much of the state and is currently represented by six-term Republican incumbent Adrian Smith. His primary challengers are Kirk Penner of Aurora, Arron Kowalski of Grand Island and Larry Bolinger from Alliance. In 2016, Smith faced no challengers in his Republican primary or in the general election. 

Smith, from Gering, points to his experience and several achievements in the past two years that he is proud of including correcting what he called a “bad Waters of the U.S. rule” which expanded regulations from the federal government and affected private property rights. He also notes the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December.

“I'm glad that we were able to change the original proposal on taxes," Smith said. "The original proposal wiped away the deductibility of ag land property taxes.”

Democrat Paul Theobald takes on the winner of the Republican primary

Paul Theobald on Democracy:

"It's about the health and well-being of our democracy in this country and few people talk about it but the reality is that we can't really point to any successful democracies that weren't anchored by a prosperous countryside made up of independent food producers surrounding small cities and towns.

"That's the recipe for a vibrant democracy and as that has eroded in our countryside, so has our democracy. To the point where we see here in Nebraska – a multinational corporation – not even an American one – just coming in and saying, ‘Look, we're going to build this right through your state whether you like it,” 25 years ago people would’ve laughed if you told him that that was going to happen. That's how much democracy has eroded it and it's a direct link between that and the demise of our rural communities."

Theobald on Trade:

"I say sometimes, it's almost as if Donald Trump woke up one morning took a dart, threw it at the map of the United States and hit the state of Nebraska and he said ‘I'm going to bring that state to its knees,’ because that's what he's doing."

Theobald on the Tax reform:

"It's going to be very hard on Nebraska ag producers. Trump's own Department of Agriculture did a study to determine how that law would affect farmers and ranchers. This is not the Congressional Budget Office – it's not university research – this is Trump's own economists at Trump's own USDA.

"What they determined was that the lowest earning 20 percent of farmers and ranchers will actually see their tax burden go up. Now, the lowest earning 20 percent are the farmers and ranchers who are absolutely on the bubble right now, they cannot take one more year with prices below the cost of production.

"If we see 20 percent of our farmers and ranchers going out of business it will be another serious blow to our rural communities in western and central -- all over Nebraska."

When asked how he responds to conservative critics of the tax reform bill who say it added money to the national debt, Smith was clear.

“We do need to address spending -- make no mistake -- we need to hold that line," Smith said.

Smith, who previously served in the Nebraska Legislature, has been a part of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, travelling to both Mexico and Canada recently. Smith says his main issue is the limit countries set on consumers buying products from their country before incurring a tax.

“The threshold for imposing a tax of Canadian buying American products is $20 U.S.," Smith said. "The reverse of that – an American buying a Canadian product its $800 – this is something that's out of balance that needs to be fixed.”

Kirk Penner grew up in Aurora and has been on the Aurora school board for 13 years. He owns his own business in Aurora, Penner Patient Care,which distributes bathing equipment for nursing homes. He agrees with Smith about the importance of trade to the 3rd District.

“We have to continue with trade, trade is big," Penner said. "We need to do whatever we can to get our products overseas – bilateral – any type of agreements that we can come up with.”

Penner says it’s easy for outsiders to think they know Nebraska’s 3rd District.

“It's hard to understand what's going on in the 3rd District, unless you have lived in the 3rd District," Penner said.

Penner wants to do what he calls “building the 3rd District promise,” creating a public/private sector strategy to bring Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney together. 

“It is an agricultural, professional and educational mecca in Nebraska," Penner said. "We need (to) all work together Grand Island, Kearney and Hastings need to work together and we may need to make it sort of like the Tri-City triangle that draws people to central Nebraska, western Nebraska and northern Nebraska.”

Penner promises to serve five terms – a total of 10 years – and he says “that’s it.”

“They want somebody that goes there and leads, they don't want somebody that goes there and is just going to do what the party leaders tell them to do," Penner said. "I'm a Republican – I've been a Republican all my life – but the 3rd District is first to me. We feed the world, it's about time people understand that.”

Arron Kowalski works on his farm located just east of Grand Island.

“I have a clear concise advantage on them when it comes to working experience – I'm a fifth generation Nebraskan farmer," Kowalski said. "There's a big difference between meeting a farmer and being one.”

Kowalski challenges Smith on his lack of solid support of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which the U.S. withdrew from. He says because of that failure, Nebraska lost exclusive access to half a billion mouths.

“When you start hearing politicians talk about trade wars and trade wars it always comes back to target agriculture first here in the United States – that is frightening," Kowalski said.

Kowalski says countries in Southeast Asia with growing middle classes want things like beef, chicken and pork as well as more corn. He also says Smith votes along party lines and sometimes that’s not a good thing in his opinion.

“He may be serving the party, but he's not serving the district," Kowalski said. "If you look at his voting record he is a very solid Republican legislator. There is a difference between party loyalty and blatantly not serving your constituents.”

Larry Bolinger served in the Air Force and the Army National Guard out of high school before starting his own network marketing company. He’s run for the Nebraska Legislature and city council seats before, but never won. He considers himself a staunch conservative, but understands trying to make the 3rd District a place people want to live and move to.

“You get certain city councils that want to keep things small, but we need business," Bolinger said. "If we want to keep people in the area, we’ve got to have business when families are growing.”

Bolinger knows he’s facing an uphill battle like the other challengers, trying to unseat an incumbent. But winning isn’t the only thing on his mind.

“If I can get in great, if not, at least I can get some of my ideas pushed that will help the area," Bolinger said.

According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, Smith has $1.7 million on hand currently, and Penner has about $3,200. Both Kowalski and Bolinger have not filed reports, which are only required for candidates who intend to raise or spend at least $5,000. The winner of the May 15th primary will face hog farmer and Democrat Paul Theobald in the November general election. Theobald is unopposed in the primary.

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