As the Republican Party has enhanced its dominance in Nebraska over the past few years, statewide politics has taken on a dull predictability. But this fall, state auditor Kate Witek's unexpected shift in party allegiance has shaken things up.
Her decision has emerged as the equivalent of a political Rorschach test: To some, she's a comment on a GOP that has lost its moorings; to others, a symbol of a Democratic Party so feeble it needed a Republican apostate to fill a down-ticket slot; to her detractors, she's an ambitious politician struggling to stay in office; and to those who don't go in for coffee-shop explication, she's one of those fetchingly odd stories American politics generates from time to time.
Witek's odyssey through her fellow Cornhuskers' conversations began late last year, when GOP Congressman Tom Osborne asked her to be his running mate in a primary challenge to incumbent Governor Dave Heineman. Witek, also a Republican, had built a reputation as a fiscal and social conservative during two terms as a state senator and as a voice for efficiency and budgetary propriety as auditor. She agreed to run and decided not to file for reelection as auditor. "I thought it would have been confusing and detrimental in the primary," she says, "if I'd also tried to run as state auditor."
Osborne eventually lost his primary bid, and it seemed as though Witek's days in office would come to an end when her term ran out. During the campaign, however, Witek noticed that what she had to say resonated most thoroughly with Democrats in the audience. An outspoken advocate of allowing the auditor to do performance audits of state agencies--a proposal that Heineman and GOP legislators vehemently oppose--Witek argued that the state's current leadership was more interested in power than in an effective state government. "The Democrats," she says, "seemed to want to start working on these serious financial issues."
So in August, Witek and her husband decided to switch parties. Sensing an opportunity at least to embarrass the opposition, Democratic leaders asked Witek to address their state convention--and, if the party faithful agreed, to run as their nominee for her old post, since they'd been unable to put up a candidate of their own. Witek agreed, and the Democrats duly--although not without controversy--nominated her. "We disagreed on so many things when she was in the legislature," says Democratic state Senator DiAnna Schimek. "But having said that, she's been a very good state auditor." Republicans, of course, have been dismissive. "Will the true Kate Witek stand up?" says Senator Roger Wehrbein. "Because now I'm confused about what she really does stand for."
The situation grew more convoluted when the secretary of state, a Republican, ruled that state law required Democrats to nominate their candidate in a primary, not at the convention. Witek and her new party, however, were able to persuade a court to overturn the ruling-- and also to collect enough signatures to put her on the ballot as a petition candidate without a party label. In the end, the secretary of state agreed to forego an appeal, and Witek will run in November as the Democratic Party's nominee.