In the race for Nebraska governor, few endorsements are as prized as the ones that promise support from farmers and ranchers.
Republican Pete Ricketts and Democrat Chuck Hassebrook are both pitching themselves as the most farm-friendly candidate in the final weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Each has highlighted support from prominent agriculture groups, which quizzed them on issues such as taxes and steps they would take to promote rural development. The candidates are looking to replace Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who is leaving office in January due to term limits. In-person early voting began Saturday.
Ricketts lays claim to endorsements from the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Cattlemen's political action committee.
He also points to his 15-member "Ag Advisory Committee," a group he formed to create farming policies for his campaign. The group includes farmers, ranchers, a banker and owners of farm equipment dealerships. Ricketts has said that, if elected, he would keep the informal group together as advisers.
"Pete Ricketts will continue to carry the torch for Nebraska farmers and ranchers," Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson said at a campaign appearance last month.
Hassebrook highlights his 36-year career with the Center for Rural Affairs, a national advocacy group that works to revive family farms and small towns.
He also is backed by the Nebraska Farmers Union's political action committee, and his campaign touts endorsements by past leaders of various Nebraska commodity boards for corn, wheat, soybeans, pork and cattle. Hassebrook lives in Lyons, a town of about 850 in northeast Nebraska, and often tells voters that he understands firsthand the concerns of people outside of Omaha and Lincoln.
The endorsements serve as an educational tool for each group's members, said Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska Omaha political science professor and former Democratic strategist. One endorsement isn't likely to sway votes, he said, but collectively they may give voters a sense of who best will serve their interests.
"The rural vote is still extremely important in Nebraska, and I imagine it always will be," Landow said.
Nebraska generally leans Republican, and the last Democrat to hold the governor's office was Ben Nelson, who left office in 1999 after serving two terms. Nebraska also has far more registered Republicans than Democrats, and the GOP advantage is magnified when Omaha and Lincoln are excluded.
Yet despite his win in the six-man GOP primary, Ricketts — an Omaha businessman — struggled in some rural counties. When he announced then-Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann as his running mate in June, Ricketts emphasized his background as an Elk Creek dairy farmer and promised that Heidemann would give rural Nebraska a voice in his administration. Heidemann resigned last month and was replaced on the ticket by State Auditor Mike Foley, of Lincoln.