Rep. Adrian Smith (R)
Nebraska 3rd District
West of Grand Island, Nebraska is wheat and livestock country. For miles on end you can see nothing but rolling brown fields, sectioned off here and there by barbed wire fences, and in the distance, a grain elevator towering over a tiny town and its miniature railroad depot. The winds, rain and tornadoes that come suddenly out of the sky remind you that the original settlers likened this part of the country to an ocean and thought themselves in their wooden wagons almost as helpless as passengers at sea in a rowboat. Settlers passed through here on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, then set down roots in the 1880s. But the rain they hoped for fell too unreliably, and wheatlands gave way to pasture and open range. It is a beautiful but hard land, exacting much from its people, as the novels of western Nebraska’s Willa Cather make poignantly clear. Chimney Rock—a clay and sandstone spire that marked a good camping spot and offered reliable spring water for travelers and their animals—was the landmark that travelers on the Oregon Trail most frequently mentioned in their journals. This symbol of westward expansion now graces the Nebraska issue of the U.S. quarter. Dozens of small counties today have fewer people than they did in 1900. Severe droughts in recent years have seemed a kind of end point, as the grasslands turned dry and brown, reservoirs and aquifers began to run dry and ranchers sold off their thinning and sickening herds. But some economic life survives. In North Platte, Bailey Yard is the world’s largest railroad classification yard, covering 2,850 acres and handling 10,000 rail cars every 24 hours. The Union Pacific line from North Platte east to Gibbon is the busiest freight rail corridor in the world. Farther west on Interstate 80 is the town of Sidney, home of Cabela’s, the world’s largest mail order and Internet business for hunting, fishing and camping gear.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 3rd Congressional District of Nebraska has one-third of the state’s people, 85% of its acreage and exists in two time zones. At nearly 65,000 square miles, it is one of the largest congressional districts—bigger than the state of New York and with more counties. Except along the interstate and around Scottsbluff, the 3rd has been losing population for decades as beef production continues to drop, and several of the western ranching counties are among the poorest in the nation. The Census Bureau reported a loss of 23,000 residents in Nebraska’s rural population in the first eight years of this decade. Valley County is one of many fighting for economic survival, creating a “business coach” to assist local firms in selling on the Internet. Still, the 3rd is a major agricultural producer, with the highest total in U.S. farm subsidies, more farms than all but one other congressional district, and more cattle and calves than any other place in the nation. Geographically and politically, the 3rd District is where the Midwest becomes the West. For years people here welcomed farm subsidies even as they angrily opposed federal interference. Politically, it is heavily Republican and sometimes ornery: In 1992 Ross Perot got more votes here than Bill Clinton. The district voted 75% for George W. Bush in 2004 and 68% for John McCain in 2008.
Rep. Adrian Smith (R)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: Dec. 19, 1970, Scottsbluff .
Education: Attended Liberty U., 1989-90, U. of NE, B.S. 1993.
Religion: Evangelical Free.
Elected office: Gering City Council, 1994-98, NE Unicameral, 1998-2006.
Professional Career: Realtor, Buyer Realty, 1997-2006; Owner, My Other Garage, 2003-06.
The congressman from the 3rd District is Adrian Smith, the youngest of the 13 freshmen Republicans elected to the House in 2006. He hails from a politically active family—his father is a former county Republican chairman, and his mother is the state GOP secretary. But the most significant political influence in Smith’s life was President Reagan. When he was in fourth grade, Smith recalls, adults around him were weighing Reagan’s attributes against that of Democrat Jimmy Carter’s, and it sunk into the boy’s head that Reagan favored a strong defense. “It just made sense to me that we needed a strong military,” said Smith, whose congressional office is filled with portraits of the former president. In college, Smith served as an intern in the Nebraska governor’s office and as a page in the state’s unicameral Legislature. At 23, shortly after graduating from the University of Nebraska, he won election to the Gering City Council in his hometown. Four years later, he knocked off a Democratic incumbent to win the first of two terms in the Legislature. There, Smith devoted his efforts to opposing abortion rights, protecting Nebraskans’ right to bear arms, fighting tax increases, and blocking efforts to expand casino gambling. He also worked as a real estate agent and storage-business owner. In May 2005, two weeks after U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, a Republican, announced his ultimately unsuccessful primary bid for governor, Smith joined the race for Osborne’s seat in Congress.
|Adrian Smith (R)||183,117||(77%)||($623,810)|
|Jay Stoddard (D)||55,087||(23%)|
|Adrian Smith (R)||55,225||(87%)|
|Jeremiah Ellison (R)||7,947||(13%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (55%)
The crowded Republican primary field included Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek and John Hanson, Osborne’s former district director. Smith championed tax incentives to attract new residents and encourage investment in the district, which is threatened with elimination in the next census because of population declines. He also promised to expand markets globally for Nebraska farmers. Still, his opponents charged that he betrayed rural Nebraska by accepting more than $300,000 in contributions from members of the Club for Growth, a national anti-tax group that opposes farm subsidies. Smith supports caps on subsidies, which many of his farming constituents do not. In response to his opponents’ criticism, he pointed to his support from the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Smith ultimately carried 39 of the 69 counties to win the nomination with 39%. Hanson finished second with 29% and was strongest in the Republican River valley south of North Platte, while Vavricek’s 27% came mainly from the Grand Island area.
For the 2006 general election, the Democratic Party fielded an unusually strong nominee: Yale-educated, cattle rancher Scott Kleeb. He accused Smith of “distorting the truth” about the Club for Growth’s opposition to farm subsidies. Smith responded that the group backed him because of his record on taxes. Smith sought to link Kleeb to Democrats who supported a timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and he portrayed Kleeb as a political carpetbagger who grew up overseas on military bases and attended schools in Colorado and Connecticut before settling in Nebraska on a family-owned ranch. Kleeb’s retort was, “You don’t run as a Democrat in the 3rd District because you thought it would be easy.” Kleeb called for changes in farm policy to emphasize niche markets and made the contest much closer than anybody expected. Each candidate raised more than $1 million. After late-October polling showed a virtual toss-up, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran an ad attacking Smith for accepting campaign money from “Washington special interests.” President Bush made one of his final campaign stops of the season here to try to help Smith. He won 55%-45%, though Kleeb won a dozen counties in the eastern portion of the district.
In Washington, Smith landed a seat on the Agriculture Committee and focused his early efforts on the rewrite of farm policy, working to expand rural development programs, increase research of algae biomass and other biofuels, and seek international markets for Nebraska crops. He stood by President Bush as support for the war in Iraq waned, even turning down the Democrats’ offer of billions of dollars in drought relief if he joined them in pushing timetables for withdrawing troops. Smith describes himself as an economic conservative in Reagan’s mold: “I believe in a market-based approach. Government is not the solution to everything. That’s why I’m not in a rush to introduce a whole lot of bills. I’ll introduce bills that I think are a good idea and work for their passage.”
In the 2008 primary, Smith easily defeated Jeremiah Ellison, an activist supporter of libertarian Ron Paul of Texas. Kleeb turned down a rematch against Smith and instead ran for the U.S. Senate.