As he campaigns across Nebraska, Republican Charlie Janssen rails against the federal health care law, U.S. immigration policy and gun control measures floated by the Obama administration.
And he's running for governor.
The Fremont state senator is hardly alone: In a crowded primary field with no obvious front-runner, many of the GOP hopefuls are latching onto hot-button federal issues as they campaign for state office.
Governors have no direct control over federal policy, but criticism of President Barack Obama, federal spending and the Environmental Protection Agency could help win state-level support by stirring the Republican base.
"The competition right now is in the primary, and those primary voters are the base," said Kevin Smith, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor. "The fact that the Republican candidates are bringing up these issues indicates that they believe they're important to the base and will bring them out."
Janssen has decried "D.C. liberals" on the campaign trail and criticized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after it raised concerns about Fremont's immigration ordinance. In the Legislature this year, he introduced a bill that would declare new federal gun restrictions unenforceable in Nebraska. The proposal stalled in committee, but Janssen said he still would push for it if he is elected governor.
"Washington, D.C., is not representing Nebraska," Janssen said. "People feel like the feds have failed us — that elected officials nationally are not listening to them. And I think the frustration that people are feeling is trickling down to the local level."
Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts said many federal issues raised in the campaign still have relevance to the governor's race because they impose burdens on the state. On his campaign website is a survey soliciting opinions about the federal health care law — along with a request for names and email addresses.
Ricketts pointed to the proposed Medicaid expansion, a piece of the federal health care law that was left for states to adopt or reject. Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who is term-limited, strongly opposes the expansion of health insurance and deferred to the federal government to set up the health care marketplace.
"These are actually Nebraska issues as well as federal issues," Ricketts said. "While the governor isn't the person who can directly pass legislation in Washington, the governor absolutely has a role as an advocate for the state, to push back against federal overreach."
In September, state Sen. Beau McCoy's campaign issued a news release critical of the Obama administration's climate plan, which congressional Republicans said would impose new burdens on coal.
McCoy said he raised the issue because it directly affected Nebraskans: Two-thirds of the state's electricity is produced by coal-fired plants, which emit far more greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas. While governors may not influence federal officials, McCoy said he still would be a "promoter and ambassador and also the chief protector" of Nebraska's interests.
"To a large extent, the federal issues bleed into state issues," he said. "I think it's completely normal, natural and appropriate for Nebraskans in this primary to ask the gubernatorial candidates about where they stand on these issues."
Even among the candidates who aren't proactively discussing federal issues, complaints about Congress and the Obama administration are surfacing at campaign stops.
State Auditor Mike Foley said he has focused his gubernatorial campaign on Nebraska-specific issues and his experience as a conservative, statewide officeholder. But he said voters often ask for his views on the health care law. During the federal government's partial shutdown, many of the questions related to partisan gridlock.
"It's not unusual for someone to say, 'OK, if you're elected, what are you going to do to clean up this mess in Washington?'" Foley said. "There may be some confusion as to what a governor does and does not do. But I think federal issues are very much on the minds of voters right now. Even though it doesn't directly relate to your duties as governor, the public wants to talk about it."
Republican state Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege said that, if elected, he would attempt to keep the federal health care law from going into effect in Nebraska until at least 2015, after the congressional midterm elections.
The federal government is "taking decision-making away from the states and from the private citizens," Carlson said. "Too often, (the states) just stand by and let it happen. And I don't want to be that kind of governor."
Representatives for the Democratic candidates, state Sen. Annette Dubas and former Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook, said they had not raised federal issues in their campaigns, except to answer occasional questions about their positions on expanding Medicaid. Both support the proposal.