Update, May 16, 2018, 11:07 a.m.: Laura Ebke and Tom Brandt will face off once more in November’s general election; Ebke finished in second place in Tuesday’s primary election with 2,603 votes, and Brandt secured first place with 3,495 votes.
Nebraska State Senator Laura Ebke, who split from the Republican Party in 2016 while already holding office and instead joined the Libertarian Party, is facing an all-out assault from her former party in an effort to win back the seat for the GOP.
“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,” wrote Grant Schulte of Associated Press, characterizing the intensity of the fight over Ebke’s seat.
The Libertarian Party only has four state legislators nationwide, including Sen. Ebke, who is the first Libertarian state legislator to hold office in Nebraska’s history. She left the Republican Party for the Libertarian Party while holding office in 2016 after Neb. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts called her out at a Republican state convention for not following the party line on legislative votes.
In the 2015 legislative session, Sen. Ebke had voted to overturn a Gov. Ricketts veto of a bill that repealed the death penalty but had also voted to sustain his veto of a gas tax hike.
“I’m not willing to bend my principles to go along or cast a vote just for the sake of party unity,” Sen. Ebke told the Lincoln Journal Star. “I agree with the Republican Party on many things and I have many friends in the party… Republicans talk about fiscal responsibility, but they tend to place not such a high emphasis on civil liberties.”
Sen. Ebke currently faces two Republican challengers in her re-election bid this year, former executive director of Nebraska Family Alliance Al Riskowski and Plymouth farmer Tom Brandt.
The socially conservative Riskowski has received an endorsement and a $5,000 donation from Gov. Ricketts. He cited a Sen. Ebke vote in favor of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for low-level non-violent crimes as an example of one of her policies that he opposes.
Rikowski defended the money he received from Gov. Ricketts, saying, “I see the governor wanting to support candidates who are of a like mind, not trying to control them.”
Tom Brandt says he launched his campaign in response to rising agricultural taxes and a lack of funding for Nebraska schools. He expressed his surprise that such a small-town election could attract so many negative ads.
“It just seems the last two weeks have been about attack ads and money. I’m not naive, but I didn’t expect it to be this intense,” he said.
Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Kenny Zoeller said that the party is focusing on defeating Sen. Ebke because after winning her election under the GOP banner, she “immediately abandoned our party and its principals.”
Sen. Ebke has come under fire for the fact that the majority of her donations have come from libertarian-leaning sources outside of her district, such as a $25,000 donation from Texan Libertarian Party donor Michael Chastain and a $15,000 donation from California businessman Chris Rufer. She says that she has had to rely on outside funding because Nebraska GOP officials have threatened to strip Republicans of their positions within the party if they support her campaign, a claim that the Nebraska Republican Party has denied.
She acknowledges that governor-backed bids to unseat incumbents have worked before in the past in the state and that her re-election effort will be a tough fight.
“I am fully aware that I’m in a precarious position here, especially when you have the financial power of the governor,” said Sen. Ebke.
Republican State Senator Roy Baker said of Gov. Ricketts efforts to get involved in state legislators’ races in comments to The Nation, “His unabashed goal is to take control of the Nebraska Legislature. He is very ideologically inclined rather than looking at other evidence or finding common ground on issues…. When you consider the amount of money the governor has and his dogma-driven agenda, it is a lethal combination.”
Sen. Ebke’s first hurdle in her re-election bid is Tuesday’s non-partisan top-two primary election. Nebraska’s state legislature is technically non-partisan, so the top-two vote winners in the primary face off in the general election, regardless of the political party to which they belong.