Over the 13 years Lee Terry has served the Omaha area in Congress, there's been a small-but-audible rumble among a handful of Douglas and Sarpy County Republicans, a not-so-subtle yearning for something more.
Terry has faced more primary opponents over that stretch, eight, than Nebraska's other incumbent congressmen combined. Yet since his first Republican primary victory, Terry has bested his GOP opponents by no fewer than 26 percentage points. That came two years ago, amid a Tea Party uprising that influenced local races.
More important to Nebraska Republicans, Terry has notched lopsided general election victories in the state's most competitive congressional district, the 2nd. Only twice have his opponents finished within single digits, in 2006 and 2008.
This year, Terry is again knocking on doors most weekends to campaign, but by now, he's proven himself adept at more than winning elections. By disavowing an early term-limits pledge he now calls naive, he's amassed enough time in the House of Representatives to matter.
As a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he has led Republican efforts to force the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project to carry tar sands oil from Canada. He's also become a go-to guy in telecommunications law.
Looking back, the congressman says he had no idea what he was getting into with term limits. Two senior members of Congress told him as a freshman that he would get none of their support. They wanted a commitment.
“They said, ‘Why would we put you on a committee when it takes three years to even understand the issues?'” Terry recalled. Many veteran lawmakers barely speak to freshmen, Terry said, much less seek their involvement on important legislation. He had to earn his keep, he said.
Terry expects to secure the GOP nomination Tuesday against four other Republicans: financial adviser Brett Lindstrom; University of Nebraska at Omaha math professor Jack Heidel; former Douglas County GOP chairman Glenn Freeman and Paul Anderson, who filed as a pauper.
But all four say they are running against an incumbent from their own party because Omahans want a change in their leadership on Capitol Hill.
“There's an impression out there that he's not very effective,” said Heidel. “That's why so many people run against him, and even more this time.”
Terry has faced his share of blowback, such as when he dropped legislation this year that would have made it easier for people to receive robocalls on their cellphones. He defended the bill as misunderstood but dropped it amid a flurry of opposition from consumer groups and attorneys general nationwide.
Terry's campaign manager, David Boomer, disputes the notion that Republicans want a different candidate.
“It's a matter of a couple of people who want to run for Congress,” he said. “They see that the country is in trouble, and we agree.”
Scott Petersen, head of the Douglas County Republican Party, said his group backs Terry and doesn't know why Republicans keep challenging him.
“When you figure that out, let me know,” he said.
Peterson said Terry endured some early criticism from the Tea Party movement, many of whom want Congress as a whole to be more conservative. Such groups, while often small in number, can appear larger and louder than they really are, he said.
“The fact that Lee keeps winning in a county that is 50-50 Republicans and Democrats tells you something,” Petersen said. “He's got a strong base of supporters, and he knows how to communicate and keep that base happy.”
Terry divides his time between Omaha and Washington. He's making the same rounds in Douglas and Sarpy County neighborhoods, making the same phone calls and raising cash. He's also running television advertisements that focus on his conservative credentials.
To date, he's raised more than $1 million.
“The key is, we have a good plan, and we're reaching out to Republicans who are likely to vote,” Boomer said. “We feel good about it.”
Terry says he sees no sign of a divided party when he looks at his four Republican opponents. In fact, he said, he was more concerned about the split in 2010.
In that election cycle, Tea Party-inspired Matt Sakalosky tried to topple Terry in the GOP primary, riding a national anti-incumbent wave. The political newbie scored a healthy 37 percent of the GOP vote despite running a shoestring campaign. He hammered Terry for his support of President George W. Bush's bailout plan for banks and financial institutions.
He has since endorsed the congressman.
Terry, for his part, says he's hearing positive feedback from voters.
“I'm getting compliments when I'm knocking on doors,” he told The World-Herald. “They see what I am doing to try and cut spending and change Washington.”
The GOP nominee will square off against one of two Democrats this fall — Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing or State Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha.
Terry is confident he'll be that guy.
“I'm doing the nuts and bolts stuff and talking to a lot of people,” Terry said. “I'm not taking anything for granted.”
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