Capitol View-Debate on Debates is Déjà vu All Over Again

By J.L. Schmidt - Statehouse Correspondent, The Nebraska Press Association
If the debate is about debates, it must be the U.S. Senate race in Nebraska. And, it must involve former Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey.
Such discussion is nothing new. Only the Republican candidate has changed.
Nearly a quarter century ago, Kerrey tangled with short-term incumbent Sen. David Karnes, R-NE, about the number of debates. The year was 1988. Now he is tangling with Republican candidate Deb Fischer about the same topic. Karnes and Fischer had both survived contentious primary battles only to face the decorated war hero who seems to like to debate about debates. Déjà vu all over again.
Karnes, appointed to the Senate in March 1987 following the death of Democrat Sen. Ed Zorinsky, successfully captured the GOP nod in a primary race against Rep. Hal Daub. Zorinsky’s unexpected death allowed Gov. Kay Orr to appoint his replacement. Many thought Daub was the clear choice.
The 39-year-old Karnes, a virtual unknown, had headed Orr’s successful 1986 gubernatorial effort in Omaha-dominated Douglas County. Daub, 47, was a four-term congressman, a party regular. Orr said she thought Karnes was the right man for the job. Critics said she favored Karnes because he wouldn’t threaten her status in the state party.
Daub and Karnes had a series of pre-primary statewide debates and Daub used a Karnes’ statement about water projects during one of those debates to launch a series of commercials warning that a vote for Karnes would be “a vote to cut off your own water.” Fighting words in a state where cattle and crops depend on water and many consider the element to be liquid gold.
Karnes won the nomination and faced Kerrey in a lone debate in the open-air auditorium at the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln. Many agreed that Karnes damaged his chances to defeat Kerrey when he commented that he believed “we need fewer farmers at this point in time.” That remark was broadcast statewide and subsequent attempts by Karnes to explain that he meant there were bigger farms being maintained by fewer farmers, just never seemed to fly.
Fischer, a veteran Sandhills rancher and state senator, has agreed to debate Kerrey on August 25 at the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island. Kerrey had proposed as many as seven debates. Fischer, who bested Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg – both party regulars – in the primary, has been busy raising funds to gear up for what could be one of the state’s most expensive political races.
Critics have said the Republican Party has bloodied itself again with an ugly primary battle – remember Daub and Karnes? Some say Fischer appears to be afraid to debate Kerrey.
Kerrey, who returned to Nebraska following service in Vietnam, defeated incumbent Governor Charles Thone, a long-time Congressman, in 1982, but served only one term in that office. He served two terms in the U.S. Senate and made an unsuccessful bid for the Presidential nomination in 1992.
One has only to read about the incident that earned former Navy Seal Kerrey the Medal of Honor and the Bronze Star in combat in Vietnam to understand why he doesn’t back down from debate. “He and his team scaled a 350-foot sheer cliff … Kerrey received massive injuries from a grenade that exploded at his feet and threw him backward onto the jagged rocks … although immobilized by his multiple wounds, he continued to maintain calm, superlative control...”
Walking onto the State Fair stage for a political debate shouldn’t seem so daunting for Kerrey. And the debates about debates shouldn’t seem like a new thing in Nebraska politics.

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.

back to top