U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith draws challengers in Nebraska’s 3rd District House race 

U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith draws challengers in Nebraska’s 3rd District House race 
Five candidates are vying for Nebraska 3rd Congressional District — three Republicans and two Democrats. One candidate from each party will advance to November’s general election. Top row, from left: Robert McCuiston, Rep. Adrian Smith (incumbent) and John Walz (Republicans). Bottom row, from left: Daniel Ebers and David Else (Democrats) (Photos courtesy of the candidates; Capitol photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)
May 13th, 2024 | Aaron Sanderford, Nebraska Examiner

BLAIR, Nebraska — Two Republicans and two Democrats running for Congress in Nebraska’s sprawling, largely rural 3rd District said they want primary voters to consider someone other than nine-term Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith. 

Smith, 53, was elected to Congress in 2006 after serving two terms as a state senator and one as a Gering City Councilman. He said he remains focused on lowering taxes, boosting trade and slowing or stopping the Biden administration, he said.

“A lot of folks are frustrated at the president,” Smith said of concerns voiced by his constituents. “I’m very proud of my record of pushing back on the president. We’ve made a difference. We’ve derailed his agenda. We’ve stood in the way.”

Adrian Smith

Age: 53

Political party: Republican

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,

attended Liberty University

Work experience: Realtor

Political office: U.S. House of Representatives, 2007-present; Nebraska Legislature, District 48, 1999-2007; Gering City Council, 1994-1998

Having GOP primary opponents is nothing new for Smith in one of the nation’s most conservative congressional districts — 63% Republican and 18% Democrat. It includes central and western Nebraska and much of the northern and southeastern edges.

He has had at least one primary opponent in every election since 2018 and has never gotten less than 65% of the vote. In 2018, he faced three opponents, including current State Board of Education member Kirk Penner. In 2020, he faced four Republican challengers. 

He spent more to campaign during those races than he has this year, campaign finance records show.

Republican primary fight

What’s new this go-round is the arrival of a national trend in Republican politics pushing state and local parties toward populists. That wave hit Nebraska in 2022 at the state level and has now washed over most county parties in the state.

That, and a dust-up between the new leaders of the state GOP and some members of Nebraska’s all-GOP congressional delegation, are how Hastings discount-store owner John Walz secured primary race endorsements from the state party and many county GOPs. 

No one in the five-member, all-Republican delegation sought or received endorsements from the state party. 

Smith has avoided criticizing the party. He said he is focused on listening to Republicans in his district who want help with the impact of inflation on their budgets.

He said lawmakers must get serious about more than fighting about discretionary spending. He said they must have difficult bipartisan conversations about entitlement spending.

Both of his GOP opponents in Tuesday’s primary and both of his potential Democratic general election opponents say Smith is all talk, a bland Republican who accomplishes little other than helping corporations and donors funding his campaigns. 

Smith says sometimes it’s hard to see the work he does on the influential tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee to help reduce regulation and taxes and provide agricultural producers fairer access to markets such as South Korea and Colombia. 

Smith said he is one of the House conservatives who exacted concessions from the Biden administration on its previous efforts to hire more Internal Revenue Service agents to audit more Americans, which he said would hassle taxpayers.

He said that there are limits to what Republicans can negotiate when Democrats hold the Senate and the White House and that things could change next year at the ballot box.

Walz, 54, said he decided to run when Smith voted to keep the government running with continuing budget resolutions instead of using the power of the purse to force Democrats in the Senate and President Joe Biden to negotiate real cuts. 

John Walz

Age: 54

Political party: Republican

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Work experience: Owner, discount store; mechanical engineer

He said too many Republicans get scared about bad press because of a government shutdown and back down too often. 

“If they used that leverage and they were to go ahead and defund the government and shut the government down … what they’re essentially doing is you’re shutting off the fourth branch of government, the bureaucratic state,” Walz said.

He says he wants the government to be more openly “Judeo-Christian.” Asked how he would represent Nebraskans of other faiths or none, he said that God’s law supersedes man’s but that he could treat people with respect even if he disagreed with them morally.

He helped organize a news conference earlier this week calling on church leaders across the state to get more involved in the state’s politics, including pressing for a more aggressive ban on abortion than voters might get to consider this fall.

Critics of similar approaches have said this could risk the tax status of churches.

Walz said he helped rebuild the Hastings chapter of the John Birch Society, a conservative group that spent the Cold War era fighting what its members perceived as the influence of communism in the U.S. government during the Cold War. 

The group opposed the Civil Rights Act. Much like the current moment in GOP politics, its members became known for fighting with conservatives who disagreed with some of its beliefs in limited government and national sovereignty.

Walz describes himself as a “MAGA Republican” because people understand that he is not part of “the establishment.” He says he is a loyal supporter of President Donald Trump. 

Smith has backed Trump as well. He was the only member of the Nebraska delegation who voted not to accept the 2020 election results. He has said the country did better under Trump.

The third Republican in the race is Robert McCuiston, a welder from Holdrege. He was mayor of Tamora, Neb., for five years in the mid-1990s. To him, Smith’s biggest failure is that he fails to “represent the common man,” especially on taxes.

He said Smith has spent so much time in Washington, D.C., that he works more for corporate tax breaks and special interest groups than worrying about working people. McCuiston said Congress should adopt term limits of 12 years and an age cap of 74 years.

He said he would push to change the federal tax code to make sure large businesses and corporations pay their fair share of taxes so middle-class people and small businesses carry less of the burden of funding the federal government.

Some have criticized Smith’s relationships with lobbyists after a New York Times story in 2014 about a ski retreat destination fundraiser featured him prominently.

McCuiston, 63, considers himself “a moderate Republican” who said he will work with anyone to help fix inflation. He said most central and western Nebraskans don’t see Smith enough. Smith, of Gering, advertises events around the district. 

Robert McCuiston

Age: 63

Political party: Republican

Education: Seward (Neb.) High School

Work experience: Welder

Political office: Mayor, Tamora, Neb., 1992-97

“He’s basically done nothing for Nebraska,” McCuiston said.

All three advocated more focus on securing the U.S. border with Mexico. Smith hammered Biden for backing away from “remain in Mexico.” Walz talked about chaos he saw on a visit to the border. McCuiston said the border needs to be closed until fixed.

Polling indicates that the border security push is the top issue among likely Republican voters after months of emphasis on it by conservative media and politicians. The economy and spending power also ranked highly for GOP primary voters.

All three describe themselves as “pro-life,” saying they favor banning abortions, with at least one exception, for the life of the mother.

Smith remains a clear favorite to advance Tuesday. He has outraised Walz $1.2 million to $22,000. None of his other opponents had yet raised or spent the $5,000 that requires reporting donations to the Federal Election Commission.

Smith listed having $1.2 million in campaign cash on hand in the most recent fundraising report, a tally he often shares with other conservative candidates during the general election because of the GOP’s nearly 4-to-1 registration advantage over Democrats in the district. 

Two Democrats compete in the primary

The winner of the GOP primary will face one of two Democrats competing Tuesday. Both Daniel Ebers and David Else said they filed to run for Congress, in part, to make sure that Smith would face a Democrat this fall.  

Ebers, 52, said he went to middle school with Smith in Gering and lived in Cambridge, Neb., until this spring, when he moved to Lincoln to continue his work in hotel management. He said he felt competing was better than complaining about politics.

Daniel Ebers

Age: 52

Political party: Democratic

Education: Associate degree, Glen Oaks (Mich.) Community College

Occupation: Hotel management

He says voters deserve more than months of Smith’s commercials saying he is fighting Biden. He said 3rd District voters need “somebody that’s going to represent the people of Nebraska.” 

“The only thing that he’s putting out there is what the president has done or hasn’t done,” Ebers said. “I don’t feel like that’s telling us what he is doing. The only thing that says is that he’s not willing to work with the other party.”

Ebers said he would focus on the economy. He said his employees tell him they need more money to live comfortably, and his boss and others tell him they aren’t making enough money to pay more. Too many people work too hard and aren’t getting ahead, he said.

On abortion, Ebers said he supports choice and says that discussion should be between a woman and her doctor.

His competitor in the Democratic primary is a familiar face from the 2022 3rd District race, Else, who farms near Overton. He is known for sparring with Republican governors during their radio call-in shows.

The corn and soybean farmer with 130 cows said somebody in the race needs to tell the truth about Trump’s tariff and trade fights with China being part of the reason food is so expensive. He said farmers are still feeling the effects of losing overseas customers.

Else said American consumers are still paying more for Chinese-manufactured goods, which he said might be a good thing one day, but not when people are struggling to make ends meet. 

David Else

Age: 63

Political party: Democratic

Education: GED, Overton High School

Occupation: Farmer, former meatpacker

He said somebody needs to defend Obamacare for self-employed people like those working in agriculture. He said he still thinks about a woman he saw crying about losing her job for taking care of her child. Health care matters, he said.

The farmer and former meatpacker said he also wants to make sure people understand how important their Latino neighbors are to making Nebraska’s ag economy function. He said he has worked alongside immigrants who earned their pay.

Else, 63, said he caught flak from some Democrats for being willing to compromise on abortion limits at 12 or 13 weeks. He said he told Nebraska Democratic Party leaders that any candidate who competes in the 3rd District will be more conservative.

He said he understands some might disagree, but he won’t stop being who he is: the guy who calls governors and tells them uncomfortable truths. He’s long been critical of Smith, describing him as a placeholder.

“What has he done?” he asked. “In all those years.”

Said Smith: “We are called to do more than just say what the problems are and focus on solutions.”

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