NET Journalists Preview U.S. Senate Debate and Talk About the Race

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September 12, 2014 - 6:30am

The four candidates on the ballot in Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race face off Sunday in North Platte, in the campaign’s final debate. NET News, in cooperation with the Nebraska Broadcasters Association, is presenting the event. It airs live Sunday at 7 p.m. CT on NET-1, NET Radio and Bill Kelly and Mike Tobias of NET News are part of a panel of journalists who will question the candidates.  Ben Bohall of NET News talks with Kelly and Tobias about the debate and this hotly-contested race to replace Mike Johanns in the U.S. Senate.

The U.S. Senate Debate, presented by NET News in cooperation with the Nebraska Broadcasters Association, airs live this Sunday (Feb. 14) at 7 p.m. CT on NET-1, NET Radio and For more campaign coverage go to



Ben Sasse49.4%
Sid Dinsdale22.4%
Shane Osborn21.1%
Bart McLeay5.7%
Clifton Johnson1.5%
Dave Domina67.5%
Larry Marvin32.5%




BEN BOHALL, NET NEWS: Going back a bit, how did we end up with this crowded field of four candidates?

BILL KELLY, NET NEWS: This was a hotly-contested primary that came about after Sen. Mike Johanns, a Republican, announced he was going to be retiring. It really threw open the race kind of unexpectedly. The Republican primary was kind of a spectacle. Ben Sasse really came out of nowhere and became kind of a conservative darling and ended up beating the better known Shane Osborn, and a well-financed businessman in Sid Dinsdale, among others. It was decisive. On the Democratic side Dave Domina had nominal opposition and won very easily.

MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS: And there are two independent, non-partisan candidates in the field who were able to get ballot access by getting at least 4,000 valid petition signatures. They are Jim Jenkins and Todd Watson. Two other independent candidates, Dan Buhrdorf and Dennis Macek, failed to obtain enough valid petition signatures to be on the November ballot.

BOHALL: A little background on the four candidates; who are they?

TOBIAS: Jenkins is a rancher and businessman from the Sandhills town of Callaway. He’s operated a cattle company for several decades and also helped start two restaurant chains. It’s his first run for office, but he’s been involved in politics and government, including serving on the Ethanol Board and working on President Ronald Reagan’s transition team. Todd Watson is the other independent candidate in the race. A lifelong Lincoln native, he has worked in accounting but spent most of his life starting and running management consulting, staffing, technology and property management businesses. He’s also running for office for the first time, but did work for Nebraska Republican Congressman Jon Christensen in Washington for a semester while he was in college.

KELLY: With the two candidates in the larger parties, first you have Ben Sasse. He’s 42-years-old; that’s very young for a U.S. Senate candidate. He describes himself as a right-wing Republican. He grew-up in Fremont, went to high school there. Goes off to college, gets kind of a double degree in the Ivy League, attending both Harvard and Yale. Goes to Oxford University in England for a time. He comes back and spends some time in Washington, working in a couple positions in the Bush administration, both with the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services. After that stint, he returns home to Fremont and became chief executive of Midland University. Dave Domina has been around for a long time. He’s been a fixture in the state’s legal community. He runs arguably the state’s highest profile liberal-leaning law firm. Just this year he and his firm have been in the news, representing opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline. In another case he’s been challenging the state’s same-sex marriage ban. He came to prominence in the 1980s when he was part of the legal team that successfully impeached the state’s attorney general, Paul Douglas. After that he ran for governor and was defeated by Helen Boosalis in the Democratic primary. Since then he has stayed on the periphery, but still very much involved in the party. He’s a Nebraska native also, born in the northeast part of the state and went to law school at the University of Nebraska.

Candidate Fundraising (as of end of June, most recent FCC reports filed)

 ReceiptsCash on Hand

Full campaign finance reports HERE


Nebraska Voter Registration



BOHALL: So who’s winning the money race so far?

KELLY: Ben Sasse, absolutely, has a substantial campaign treasury and will likely attract additional out-of-state money as the race goes along.

BOHALL: And Sasse has another advantage in the number of registered Republicans in Nebraska.

KELLY: It’s a substantial advantage. Right now approximately 48 percent are registered Republicans, 31 percent are registered as Democrats in the state. The rest are nonpartisan or Libertarian. Perhaps the most significant thing is the trend that’s been seen: as the state’s population has increased, the number of registered Democrats has actually declined during that period of time. So it’s an uphill battle for almost anybody who is a Democrat running for statewide office right now.

BOHALL: Is it unusual to have many independents or third party candidates on the U.S. Senate ballot?

TOBIAS: It really isn’t. In 2008, when Mike Johanns was elected, you had Nebraska Party and Green Party candidates. In 2002, there was a Libertarian Party candidate and an independent candidate. Going back to 1996, there were two third party candidates. So it’s not unusual.

BOHALL: Have candidates who aren’t Republicans or Democrats found success in past U.S. Senate races?

TOBIAS: No, not really. In the races I just mentioned, each of those candidates received about one percent of the vote each. For the most successful non-major party candidate in recent history, you have to go back to 1982 for an independent candidate, Virginia Walsh, who ran against Democrat Ed Zorinsky and Republican Jim Keck in the Senate race. She received almost five percent of the vote.

BOHALL: So talk about the U.S. Senate candidate debate on Sunday. The format is a little different than most debates.

KELLY: There’s a little bit more flexibility. For one thing, we’ve dispensed with opening statements, during which candidates generally tend to say the same thing they say at every debate. We’re pre-recording those, and they will be available on the NET News Facebook page before the debate. I think a significant part of it is, in addition to standard question and answer, we’re giving the candidates some flexibility in the amount of time they can respond to a question farther into the debate. So hopefully it’s not going to be quite as canned as usual.

TOBIAS: I think our goal is to really focus on just a handful of really key issues and go in-depth on them, versus. kind of the traditional candidate debate format which is usually short answers. We probably aren’t going to cover every issue that people are interested in, but we’re really hoping that we take a few key issues and really spend a lot of time on them so people can see the depth of knowledge and positions of the four candidates.



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