OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska has not elected a Democrat to the House of Representatives since 1994, and until this month, prospects for changing that were dim at best. Of the state’s three House seats, a Democrat has a fighting chance only in the district encompassing Omaha and its suburbs. And the party’s sole hope there, Omaha’s popular City Council president, had declared that he was not going to run.
But suddenly, the council president, Pete Festersen, has jumped into the 2014 race against an eight-term incumbent Republican. And a Lincoln lawyer, Dennis Crawford, declared his candidacy in a second Nebraska district where the Republican incumbent also had been unopposed. Both say their moves are fueled by popular anger over the 16-day Republican-led shutdown of the federal government.
“If I ever see Ted Cruz, all I’m going to say is, ‘Thank you, thank you,’” Vince Powers, Nebraska’s Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview. “I would’ve been in witness protection, because I didn’t have anybody to run.”
Here and nationally, the Democratic Party is enjoying something of a boomlet in newly declared candidacies for the House. Since Oct. 1, five candidates have lined up to contest Republican-held seats, with at least four more in the wings, Democratic officials say. Almost all say they are driven to run — ostensibly, at least — by disgust over the shutdown, first espoused by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and embraced by Tea Party Republicans in the House and, eventually, most others as well. Nonetheless, most of the Republicans viewed as most vulnerable are moderates, not those who pushed for the shutdown.
In Arkansas, former Mayor Patrick Henry Hays of Little Rock announced his race for the seat of Rep. Tim Griffin, a Republican who is retiring, by denouncing the shutdown as a travesty. Last Thursday, Bill Hughes Jr., a former federal prosecutor, opened his challenge to a New Jersey incumbent, Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, by railing against what he called the Republicans’ “irresponsible brinksmanship” in closing down the government.
And Wednesday, Alex Sink, Florida’s chief financial officer who narrowly lost a 2010 bid for governor, entered a special election race to fill the House seat of Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Republican who died at 82 on Oct. 18.
Republicans say they are unimpressed. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits candidates and funnels money into races it deems winnable, says that the shutdown will push others to enter 2014 House races within weeks.