Editor's note: As part of the NET News "Campaign Connection 2012: Voter Voices" project, producer Bill Kelly was joined at the Broken Bow Public Library by seven people living in or near Custer County, Nebraska to talk about what they wanted from candidates running for seats in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. These seven voters should not be seen as necessarily representative of the entire 3rd Congressional District.
When NET News invited a group of likely voters from Central Nebraska to talk about issues important to them in this election year, we expected a variety of opinions. What was surprising for many of the participants is that they seemed to defy the conventional wisdom of how Republican voters are often categorized in campaign coverage. It was a lively 90-minute discussion.
The issues highlighted included: Nebraska's farm economy has been so profitable that most in this group felt it was a secondary issue in this election year. Deep suspicions about President Obama's health care program remain but there's also a sense that something needs to change to provide better coverage for many Americans. While many have concerns about illegal immigration, most in this group felt amnesty for those already in the country should be discussed along with more effective control of the borders. Hot-button social issues like gay marriage may be big talk radio topics, but these are not major issues in an area where "live and let live" is a guiding principle.
The group consisted mostly of registered Republicans.
Patrick Wright, Mike Evans, and Mike Steckler took part in the NET News Voter Voices discussion at the Broken Bow Public Library in Broken Bow, Nebraska.
- Connie Hansen, who lives in Broken Bow, where she used to work at a local medical clinic as a microbiologist. She and her husband now operate a small sustainable farm. She was raised in New York State and educated in Boston.
- Mike Evans, who owns a feed store in Broken Bow serving a large area of central Nebraska. He's married with two teenage children.
- Mike Steckler is the administrator at the hospital in Broken Bow. He's married with three grown sons.
- Andra White, who works for Central Plains Center for Services, a state contractor that provides scholarship services to foster children. She's married and lives in Broken Bow with her three young children on the family's farm.
- Patrick Wright, who was the youngest participant in the discussion. A Broken Bow High School senior, he's the editor of the school paper and will attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln next fall to study journalism.
- Don Lydic, who was the only registered Democrat in the group, though he added that he considers himself more of an independent. He retired as a UNL Extension agent in Broken Bow and owns a ranch/farm near Gothenburg, Neb.
The discussion started with Patrick Wright, days away from graduating and voting in his first election, noting he had "some concerns being a student going out into the world" with the nation's economic health.
"It's going to be difficult," Wright said. He added he'd like candidates for the House and Senate to talk about job security, since he'd like to know that when he gets out college he will "have a dependable, reliable job that I can go to every day and not worry about being laid off or whether I'm going to have a job the next week."
Feed store owner Evans, profiting from very healthy markets for farm products in Nebraska, had nothing but good things to say about the current state of the local economy. Watching traffic along Highway 2 through Broken Bow, he said he sees the number of pick-up trucks operated by electricians, plumbers, and carpenters as a sign of a healthy job market.
That led to an observation from the Republican businessman not often heard from staunch conservatives.
"Since the Obama administration has been in office, I would say central Nebraska has had the best economy it probably ever has, as far as looking at production agriculture," Evans said. "They've done well. I'm impressed by it."
If there was a pocketbook issue everyone at the table responded to, it was health care and insurance.
With a newly renovated 24-bed medical center to operate, hospital administrator Steckler said "health care issues are foremost on my mind."
Bill Kelly of NET News listens to the Voter Voices discussion along with Andra White, Don Lydic and Connie Hansen in Broken Bow, Neb.
He told the group the health care industry is in a holding pattern while the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the health care bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama. Regardless of the outcome of that ruling, Steckler feels strongly that something needs to be done to address the 50 million Americans without health insurance.
"I don't know if (the current health care bill) is the answer," he said. "Whatever happens, we have to follow along and do the best we can with whatever policies come out."
Evans responded that the legislation as it stands makes him "really nervous," adding that he thinks "it's the road to socialism. The government cannot be everything for everybody all the time. If we do that, we are going to destroy incentive and this country's going to go the way Europe is going."
Even though high school senior Wright is currently covered by his parents' health insurance, he said he believes the scope of the Federal legislation is "an important thing" for candidates to consider.
"I don't want them to be involved as much as they think they should be involved," Wright said. "The government thinks they should be involved in every factor of it and that everyone needs health insurance, but I think they need to give a little more credit than they are."
Now retired, Don Lydic argued there needs to be more talk among the candidates about paying for expanded health care.
"Tax reform and health care are the two things that go together," Lydic said, who feels the rich and corporations need to be paying more. "You have to think about it in the context of our current tax system. There are so many ways to scheme the system. The bigger your corporation the more you can scheme it."
"We have the money to do good health care," Steckler responded, "we just aren't doing it right, and I think the incentives are not there to drive us towards quality care while doing lower cost. Part of the Obama health care plan leads us down that path and there are parts that don't make any sense."
Evans said he hears many of his friends and neighbors claiming the government's concern shouldn't be the poorest Americans, since "their health care is 100 percent paid for anyway. They come up to the hospital. You can't turn them away by law. The only problem is you get reimbursed for it."
He added that the rich obviously can afford their health care, so they shouldn't be a major concern for the government either.
"It's all the rest of us, the 80 percent in the middle, that they are trying to get this plan for," Evans said.
Evans had listed immigration as his top issue in the coming election at the start of the Broken Bow discussion.
Watch the video above or Michael Steckler's views on health care, recorded at the Broken Bow Public Library in Broken Bow, Neb.
"I am very worried about America losing its identity," he told the group. His policy recommendation to the candidates: "When it comes to the border, close the border."
Lydic agreed that members of Congress needed to emphasize "an immigration policy that requires a green card and enforce it."
White, who sometimes works with recent immigrants while assisting foster families, felt strongly that candidates need to address how immigration laws affect the children of immigrants. White worried about those "who did not come here by choice, end up in this country, can't work, can't go to college because they are not eligible for any federal aid, or student loans, for that matter," because they happened to be born of immigrant parents without full documentation.
"They are really in a tough spot," she said. "When you can't work or can't educate yourself, what do you have?"
When asked if this is a problem of closing the border or free enterprise and cheap labor, Steckler said he saw it as "a cheap labor thing, quite honestly. There's an incentive to look the other way when these people come to work."
Hansen, who runs the sustainable farm with her husband, has been living and working in Nebraska for 30 years - but her view of immigration issues is shaped by growing up on the East Coast, she said, "where we had lots of immigrants after the second World War."
She saw a vibrant population of hard workers.
"They did a wonderful thing for this country," she said "I think it could happen again with the new immigrants."
"The American people know you aren't going to deport 13 million people," Evans said. "The only people who think about that are the far left and the far right."
His recommendation to policy makers: "Close the border, give them citizenship, clean the slate and start over."
The rest of the group expressed much the same sentiment. White said he felt strongly that "hard-working families that are already here" should be allowed citizenship, or what is referred to as amnesty for immigrants.
"They are good people and they are family-oriented, and they might as well be contributing to our country," he said.
Much of the rest of the discussion focused on their frustration with the tone of the current political debate and the influence of big-money donors on candidates for office. NET News will share more of their comments next week.