Surprising dynamics underlie Ebke-Brandt race for Legislature

Tom Brandt, left, is challenging Sen. Laura Ebke, right, in Legislative District 32. (Photos by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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July 25, 2018 - 6:45am

Take one Libertarian legislator who left the Republican Party over disagreements with Gov. Pete Ricketts. Add a Republican candidate who wasn’t the governor’s choice in the primary, where Ricketts’ preferred candidate got subtracted out. That’s the formula for one of the more intriguing races for the Nebraska Legislature this year.


At the Saline Country Fair parade through downtown Crete, behind the noisy fire engines, the color guard, and the floats come the candidates: Laura Ebke and Tom Brandt, running to represent this five-county southeast Nebraska district.

The 32nd District (Map courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Ebke is the incumbent – a college political science instructor, she was elected four years ago as a Republican, championing low taxes and less regulation. But Ebke split with Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts when she supported repealing the death penalty and authorizing drivers’ and professional licenses for DACA recipients – people brought to this country illegally when they were children.

After Ricketts criticized her and other Republicans for not following the party platform, Ebke switched to the Libertarian Party two years ago. The state Republican Party spent money opposing her in the primary.

Her challenger is Tom Brandt, a Plymouth area farmer who supports the death penalty and says DACA is a federal issue. Brandt’s top issue is property tax relief. He points to taxes on his own parcels of land, which have gone up between 40 and 70 percent in the last 10 years.  

Brandt is a Republican, but he wasn’t Ricketts’ favorite in the primary. That was Al Riskowski, former head of the Nebraska Family Alliance, a socially conservative advocacy group. Brandt was subject to attack ads by the Virginia-based Tenth Amendment Project in the primary.

In that primary, Riskowski came in third, with 23 percent of the vote. Ebke finished second, unusual for an incumbent, with 33 percent. And Brandt topped the field, with 44 percent.

Brandt says he’s connecting with his neighbors as he campaigns. “When I knock on your door – ‘Hi I’m Tom Brandt, farmer from Plymouth’ – usually the ‘Brandt,’ ‘farmer’ or ‘Plymouth’ will generate some discussion,” he said.

Ebke says she’s trying to build on the more than three dozen town hall meetings she held in the first three years of her term, and talk about her record. “That’s really what it’s all about, is to try to reconnect and let them know that I really am on their side,” she said. She cites accomplishments like getting the Legislature to review occupational license requirements every five years.

Brandt says after he gets past introducing himself, he moves discussions with voters on to the central issues of his campaign: property tax relief and school funding. “These two are the same thing: property tax relief and fairness in school funding. Because 12 of our 13 school districts don’t receive any equalization aid, because they receive no aid, those school boards are forced to bear down on the farms, businesses and houses for property tax to finance 95 percent of the schools,” Brandt said.

Brandt says he wants to increase state school aid along the lines of a plan proposed this year by Sen. Tom Briese. Briese’s plan would have eliminated many sales tax exemptions – Brandt mentions massage services and haircuts. But the plan would also have increased sales, income, and cigarette taxes, to increase aid to schools and lower property taxes.

Ebke says she told Briese she would vote to pull his bill out of committee, but that vote never happened. “I thought that that was probably the most thoughtful version. But I also told everybody that I would look at and probably vote for anything that came out that would give some property tax relief,” Ebke said.

Ebke wound up voting for an unsuccessful proposal by Ricketts for property tax relief, even though she said it didn’t do enough. Ricketts criticized the Briese plan, saying it made no sense to try to decrease property taxes by increasing other taxes.

Despite their difference on property taxes, and in the primary, Brandt says he expects Ricketts to support him. “I think so. I think like all the Republican candidates, certainly. Yeah. He’s got a race to run and we’ve got a race to run, and the Republican Party has been supportive,” Brandt said.

Ricketts’ campaign and the Republican Party confirmed their support. But Ebke, pointing to Ricketts' unsuccessful support of Riskowski in the primary, says it may not matter. “I think that a lot of folks in the district have been rubbed the wrong way by the governor trying to control elections,” Ebke said.

The candidates are campaigning on other issues as well: Brandt says he wants to expand rural broadband access using public power facilities; Ebke, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, says she wants to continue work on fixing Nebraska’s prison system.

So far in the race, Ebke has enjoyed a significant advantage in campaign finance. After the primary, she reported spending almost $120,000, fueled by contributions from major Libertarian donors in Texas and California, as well as Nebraska interest groups including bankers, realtors, hospitals, and university supporters.

Brandt, by contrast, reported spending just under $40,000, most of that coming from individual contributions. But now with the support of Ricketts and the Republican Party, that could change, as the candidates spend more money, knock on more doors, and walk in more parades before November’s election.

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