A Lancaster County voter returns her request card for an early voting ballot. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
PLATTSMOUTH, Nebraska — A third of Nebraska gets no summer break from voting this year. The state set a June 28 special election to fill the 1st Congressional District’s open House seat.
Nebraska must select someone to finish the last six months of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s term. He resigned in March after a federal jury convicted him of three felonies.
Two state senators are running to replace him — Republican Mike Flood, a former Speaker of the Legislature from Norfolk, and Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks, a lawmaker from Lincoln.
They both hit the campaign trail again a day after advancing in the May 10 primary election. That race put both candidates on the November general election ballot to determine who will represent the 1st District for the next full, two-year term that begins in January. Their political parties’ executive committees picked them separately to run in the special election.
Last week, the Nebraska Examiner sat down with Flood in Sarpy County, where he met suburban mayors of cities including Papillion and La Vista, which were moved into the 1st District this year through redistricting.
The Examiner also sat down with Pansing Brooks in Plattsmouth, where she hosted a meet-and-greet with about a dozen Nebraskans at the Back Alley Diner.
Turning voters out
Flood and Pansing Brooks agree that one of the most difficult parts of running in a special election is motivating voters to turn out a month after the primary, when they can typically expect a breather from political campaigning.
One Plattsmouth resident who attended Pansing Brooks’ event, for instance, asked the Examiner after the senator took questions why she was talking about another election in June.
“The critical issue right now is getting people out, recognizing they’re all exhausted,” Pansing Brooks said.
“We have to get the vote out,” Flood said. “We have to make sure our message is in front of the people who will be voting.”
Inflation and abortion
Flood said he plans to focus on kitchen table issues like trying to curb — or at least slow the growth — of inflationary pressures on food and fuel costs by cutting federal spending.
His first TV ad of the campaign cycle shows him staring into an empty refrigerator, talking about the costs of raising teen-aged boys at a time when food costs are rising faster than pay.
Pansing Brooks said she wants to curb inflation, too. But she’s seen a change in what voters emphasize since the leak of a potential Supreme Court ruling that could overturn Roe vs. Wade.
They’re asking what a ruling like that might mean, not only for abortion, she said, but for issues such as same-sex marriage and the ability to purchase birth control.
Flood advocates outlawing abortion in Nebraska and voted for a late-term abortion ban. Pansing Brooks backs abortion rights and helped to filibuster a bill that Flood co-sponsored to ban abortion if the Supreme Court acts.
Flood and other state Republicans, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, have described the need to protect the unborn as a moral and religious imperative, not a political one.
“My position on abortion has been very clear since the start of my legislative service,” Flood said. “The majority of people in my district support ending the practice of abortion.”
Pansing Brooks, like Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb, points to polling by Kleeb’s group Bold Nebraska that indicates a majority of those polled want to keep abortion safe and legal.
“It’s beyond an abortion issue,” Pansing Brooks said. “It’s about birth control … in vitro fertilization … marrying the people whom you love, and … not having government in at the exam table when making health care choices.”
National groups involved in the abortion issue could target Nebraska’s 1st District with outside ads because of the timing of the special election, months before a slew of fall contests, political observers said.
The 1st District is a cheaper media market than those on the nation’s coasts, giving groups that want to test which ads might work this fall a chance to do so at less cost, observers said.
It’s unclear whether Republicans or Democrats might be more motivated to vote by a court decision overturning Roe, said Richard Witmer, a political scientist at Creighton University.
Because the courts have held since the early 1970s that abortion is a right, the issue has motivated Republicans to vote for decades, Witmer said.
But that could change given the leak of the draft court ruling, Witmer said. The Supreme Court’s actual ruling could be released a day or two before the special election, which could end up motivating Democrats, he said.
“The status quo tamped down some of the enthusiasm in people who always assumed they had that right,” Witmer said.
A key factor in the special election, Witmer said, will be how high turnout is among women, especially now that the 1st District includes more of Omaha’s largest suburbs.
Much depends on how Flood and Pansing Brooks frame the issue, observers said. Flood could motivate Republicans by running as a defense against a federal law legalizing abortion nationally.
He has pointed out his work to protect pregnant women, including extending prenatal care, including to women who might be in the country illegally but who are giving birth to American children.
Pansing Brooks is already doing what observers said Democrats should do strategically, and that is to stress the potential for a slippery slope from abortion bans to other issues of women’s autonomy and personal privacy.
Gun rights vs. gun control
Another issue that cuts both ways in Nebraska’s special election is the fight between gun rights and gun control, after a mass shooting in Texas claimed 21 lives last week, including 19 children.
The Nebraska Legislature nearly passed an open-carry bill that would require no permit to carry a handgun. Flood voted for the bill, which was introduced by State Sen. Tom Brewer. Democrats, including Pansing Brooks, filibustered it.
Flood said he would like to see Congress spend more on mental health care and see Nebraska get tougher on young people who commit violent crimes. Asked what he thought about mandatory background checks on gun purchases, he said he wouldn’t infringe on the Second Amendment rights of “law-abiding Nebraskans.”
Pansing Brooks, who called herself a supporter of the Second Amendment, said she’d like to see Congress consider mandatory background checks and perhaps revisit the assault weapons ban that former President George W. Bush let expire in 2004. Something has to change, she said.
Both candidates emphasized their ability to work with people in the opposite party. Flood pointed to his time as speaker and Pansing Brooks pointing to her work in the Legislature.
Where they agree
Flood said he will work with anybody but will not abandon his principles. Pansing Brooks, a former Republican, said voters deserve someone who puts sound policy over political party.
Both said that if elected to Congress, they would emphasize rural economic development. Flood discussed his work in Norfolk to steer private and public investment in amenities and denser downtown housing sought by young people. Pansing Brooks talked about the need to invest and build out rural broadband and boost federal incentives for small businesses.
The numbers game
The GOP still has an edge in terms of 1st District voters registered, but new maps the Legislature adopted last year make the district less heavily Republican than it was in 2020.
National Republican leaders are doing their part for Flood, with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy headlining a fundraiser for Flood on June 3 at the Lincoln Country Club.
National Democrats have focused more attention on the 2nd District race in the Omaha area, where State Sen. Tony Vargas is challenging three-term incumbent Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.
Congressional special elections are rare in Nebraska. The last such House race was in 1951, after 3rd District Rep. Karl Stefan died. The 1st District last held a special election in 1940.
Political scientists interviewed expect the most committed voters to show up for the special election — voters who have voted in three or four of the last four primary elections.
“Issues matter in a race like this, but not always like you’d think,” said Paul Landow, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It’s what will motivate the already most motivated voters to come out and vote.”
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