OMAHA, Neb. — Now that Nebraska's primary election has put all three House incumbents back in the race to retain their seats, the question arises of what the future holds for the state's conservative, antiestablishment tea party movement.
A significant segment of the movement had put its hopes in political newcomer Matt Sakalosky, who ran as a Republican against incumbent GOP Rep. Lee Terry in the state's Omaha-centric 2nd District.
That support showed up at the polls Tuesday, when Sakalosky siphoned more than 1 of 3 Republican votes from Terry. With 63 percent of the vote, it was Terry's worst primary showing since his first in 1998, when he drew 40 percent of the vote in a field of four Republicans vying for an open seat.
But Terry has faced increasingly formidable challenges in his most recent elections. Democrat Jim Esch gave Terry a fright in 2006, initially leading in polls before losing by about 9 percentage points. Esch launched a rematch in 2008, and came within 4 percentage points of knocking Terry off.
Many who supported Sakalosky this year were drawn to his pledge to cut government spending and lower taxes, while others expressed anger over Terry's vote for President George W. Bush's $700 billion bank bailout and the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program that rewarded people for replacing gas-guzzling vehicles with more fuel-efficient ones.
"You can't ignore those votes," tea party activist Dawn Klein of Bennington said during primary campaigning. Klein's group, 9-12 Nebraskans, had actively supported Sakalosky.
But now that Terry is the GOP nominee, many tea party supporters are left to hold their noses and back either the incumbent they sought to unseat or — less likely — the Democrat. Some will no doubt boycott the general election altogether.
Terry could get some help from an unexpected source — Sakalosky. The Omaha businessman said after conceding the primary that he will endorse the incumbent and "do everything we can to beat Tom White."
White has said he will reach out to tea party supporters frustrated with the status quo in Washington, saying he is more fiscally conservative than Terry.
But that's not likely to fly with Nebraska's tea party movement, said Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
For starters, Adkins said, tea party supporters will balk at a number of White's positions in the last year, including his support of Democratic-backed health care reform.
Adkins compared the tea party movement to Ross Perot's Reform Party movement in the 1990s. That movement's supporters were typically white, middle-class Americans who felt squeezed by Washington and a growing federal government. But Republicans coaxed many of Perot's supporters to their fold and in 1994, recaptured both chambers of Congress in midterm elections.
"I'm not as much waiting to see where the tea party goes as I am waiting to see Republicans address the issues of the tea party, and then pull them into the Republican Party," Adkins said.
Doug Kagan, who founded the conservative Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom that includes itself in the tea party movement, said his group has supported Terry's re-election from the beginning. He has some concerns about whether the various tea party factions can unite in the months to come.
"I think that remains to be seen," Kagan said. "There's been some real animosity between the two camps. I think it's really incumbent upon Sakalosky to come over and help Lee Terry's general election campaign."