By David Ingram
(Reuters) - A Nebraska lawyer is trying to breathe life into an old-fashioned antitrust movement with a campaign for the U.S. Senate based partly on breaking apart the country's biggest banks and blocking consolidation among meatpackers.
In a throwback to an era when some politicians won by railing against big companies for strangling competition, Dave Domina secured the Democratic nomination in May and faces Republican Ben Sasse in the Nov. 4 election.
Rural, agriculture-heavy Nebraska rarely sends Democrats to Congress. Sasse, president of Midland University in Fremont, has not spoken about antitrust policy. In a written statement, he said Nebraskans want to shrink government.
As Congress holds hearings on a series of corporate mergers, Domina's campaign is unusual for condemning big deals that he says squeeze suppliers and small companies trying to compete.
"Those things in turn drive consumer prices up, employment opportunities and business opportunities down, and are completely inconsistent with what is really a free or a fair market," he said in a phone interview.
In a varied law career, Domina, 63, has represented landowners trying to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would run through Nebraska, and challenged Tyson Foods Inc, the largest U.S. meat processor.
Antitrust is the area of law concerned with keeping markets competitive. More aggressive enforcement should start, Domina said, with a Justice Department lawsuit to block Tyson's proposed $8.55 billion acquisition of sausage-maker Hillshire Brands Co.
In 2004, he won what was considered a historic $1.28 billion jury verdict in an antitrust case against Tyson. A judge threw out the verdict as unlawful.
"It sounds in part that he is tapping into a long tradition of agrarian populism, and that could be very interesting, especially since he seems to know something about it," said New York University law professor Harry First.
Tyson declined to comment on Domina's campaign.
Domina calls for government enforcement against seedmakers such as Monsanto Co. He also says Congress should bar any bank from holding more than 5 percent of all U.S. deposits. The current ceiling is generally 10 percent.
Domina's views run counter to how U.S. antitrust policy and economics have evolved since the 1960s. Courts shifted from protecting small businesses to promoting overall consumer welfare, mainly through lower prices.
In the Tyson lawsuit Domina handled, courts found the company could legally buy cattle through contracts, rather than on the traditional cash market, even though the practice drove down prices paid to cattlemen.
The American Meat Institute, a trade organization in Washington, D.C., would not comment on Domina's views but has defended its industry as dynamic and competitive.
Auburn University economist Robert Taylor, who was one of the cattlemen's trial experts against Tyson, said Domina had both a talent for speaking to a jury and a sharp tongue. Domina once referred to Tyson's legal team in court as "slaughterhouse lawyers," Taylor said, adding, "They all flinched."
(Reporting by David Ingram in New York and Michael Avok in Norfolk, Nebraska; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech)