Libertarian candidate says she expected to be a target
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska lawmaker who left the Republican Party to become one of the nation's few Libertarian state legislators is facing the political fight of her life against two Republicans challengers, including one backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
The showdown began after state Sen. Laura Ebke switched parties in 2016, citing concerns about the GOP governor's public demands for more "platform Republicans" in the Legislature.
The race is one of the most closely watched in a Tuesday primary that will eliminate one of the three candidates for the seat and also determine party nominees for governor, U.S. Senate and Nebraska's three U.S. House seats.
GOP officials have unleashed a wave of negative mail and radio ads against Ebke, of Crete, turning the small-town primary into one of the most hotly contested races in Nebraska. Ricketts, a multimillionaire, has donated $5,000 to one of her opponents, Al Riskowski, a longtime ally.
Ebke said she expected party officials to target her in the election and acknowledged they might succeed. Incumbents have traditionally fared well in Nebraska legislative races, but in 2016, three moderate Republican senators lost their seats after the governor endorsed and contributed to more conservative challengers. Ricketts said the senators were defeated because they didn't reflect their conservative districts.
"I am fully aware that I'm in a precarious position here, especially when you have the financial power of the governor," Ebke said.
Another Republican hopeful, Tom Brandt, said he jumped into the race in March out of frustration that lawmakers haven't done more to address rising agricultural property taxes or provided additional state funding for rural schools. He said he's relying on name recognition from his involvement with local farm, church and sports groups and his county GOP.
Brandt, a farmer from Plymouth, said he was surprised the race has turned so nasty and drawn so much attention from outside the district.
"It just seems the last two weeks have been about attack ads and money," Brandt said. "I'm not naive, but I didn't expect it to be this intense."
The two top vote-getters in Tuesday's primary will advance to the November general election, regardless of their party affiliation.
Riskowski said he differs from Ebke on key issues, such as a bill she supported that would have eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for low-level felonies, including drug-manufacturing and gun crimes. Supporters argued the bill would give judges more discretion and help ease Nebraska's persistent prison overcrowding.
Riskowski, a former executive director of the socially conservative Nebraska Family Alliance, presented himself as a "strong moral and fiscal conservative." He said his experience and relationships in the Legislature would help him sell a platform of property tax cuts and rural economic development.
Riskowski, of rural Martell, defended the contribution from Ricketts, saying he already agreed with the governor on most issues and has known him for nearly 20 years.
"I see the governor wanting to support candidates who are of a like mind, not trying to control them," he said.
Most of Brandt's donations have come from district residents and relatives, while Ebke has relied heavily on out-of-state contributors.
Since Jan. 1, Ebke hasn't received a single individual donation from her district. Nine of the 11 such donors don't live in Nebraska and the other two reside outside her district, according to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Ebke received a $25,000 contribution from Michael Chastain, a major Libertarian Party donor from Austin, Texas, and $15,000 from Chris Rufer, a California tomato tycoon.
Ebke said she was forced to rely on out-of-state contributions because Nebraska GOP officials threatened to remove local party leaders from their positions if they donate to her campaign. The Nebraska Republican Party denied the allegation.
Ebke's party switch made her the first Libertarian state lawmaker in Nebraska history, and she's one of four now serving nationwide. The other three are in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
Ebke, an adjunct political science professor, said breaking ties with the GOP has allowed her to work with senators from both parties at a time when the Legislature is often gridlocked. The former Republican activist comes from a family with deep ties to the local GOP, but she said she felt increasingly alienated with the rise of then-candidate Donald Trump.
Then came the Nebraska Republican Party's state convention in 2016, when Ricketts singled out Ebke and other state lawmakers by name and called for more "platform Republicans" that adhere to conservative ideals.
"I used to belong to a Republican Party that was a big tent," Ebke said. "It just seemed to me like the party had lost that. I still wanted to be able to reach out across party lines and look at issues individually."
As a Republican in 2015, Ebke voted to override Ricketts' vetoes of legislation to repeal the death penalty and allow driver's licenses for youths who were brought into the country illegally as children but allowed to remain under an Obama administration directive. But she also voted to sustain his veto of a gas tax increase, and this year she introduced a bill on his behalf to promote accountability within the Nebraska State Patrol.
Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Kenny Zoeller said the party targeted Ebke because she ran as a Republican "and immediately abandoned our party and its principals" after winning in 2014.
"The residents of District 32 deserve a Republican legislator who will reflect their values, and Laura Ebke certainly does not," Zoeller said.
Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte