Congressman-elect Mike Flood addresses crowd of supporters in Norfolk, Nebraska on election night. Flood, a state senator from Norfolk, won a special election Tuesday over State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
NORFOLK, Nebraska — Five days of wrath about a Supreme Court decision reversing Roe v. Wade could not derail the basic math of Republican-dominated voter registrations in eastern Nebraska that helped elect State Sen. Mike Flood to Congress on Tuesday.
Flood, a Norfolk Republican who ran hard against abortion in a district where registrations lean GOP by 16 percentage points, defeated State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a Lincoln Democrat who argued that abortion rights protect women’s bodily autonomy.
Flood won 53% to 47% in unofficial results.
“Today across the 1st Congressional District, Nebraskans made their voices heard, loud and clear, tonight,” Flood said. “They sent an unmistakable message to Washington that America is on the wrong track, and it’s time for a change in leadership. Under Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s one-party rule and reign of error, things have gone from bad to worse.”
Flood will serve the final six months of former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s term. Fortenberry, R-Neb., resigned in March after being convicted of three felonies. Fortenberry was sentenced Tuesday in federal court in Los Angeles to two years of federal probation and a $25,000 fine.
‘Front end of the momentum’
Both Pansing Brooks and her campaign manager, Chris Triebsch, said it may take more time to educate 1st District voters about the implications of losing the right to seek an abortion, but that the abortion ruling gave their campaign a significant boost in the last few days.
“We were supposed to lose by 10 points,” Pansing Brooks told supporters late in the evening.
“We are at the front end of the momentum,” Triebsch said, “and it will carry us all the way to November.”
The two candidates will square off again in November for the next two-year term to represent the 1st District.
Flood’s special election victory offered the first evidence after the Roe decision that anger over abortion rights might not be enough on its own for Democrats to stop the momentum and history behind what Republicans predict will be a “red wave” election this fall. The party out of power during first-term presidencies typically gains seats in off-year elections.
But the decision may also have motivated more Democrats to the polls in a 27-28% turnout election to make the race more competitive, as political observers predicted. The margin of Flood’s victory, with some rural counties still reporting, was within single digits.
As Flood edged ahead about 9:15 p.m. Pansing Brooks told about 100 supporters gathered at the Alchemy cocktail bar that the last few days have seen an “incredible” boost for her campaign.
“We’ve really started a movement. … If we realize it tonight, great. If not, we will fully realize it in November,” she said.
A veteran campaign aide for Pansing Brooks said if she loses by 3%, “we will take that.”
Flood focused on inflation, federal spending
Flood has said “Nebraska is a pro-life state.” But he ran on more than opposition to abortion. Flood centered his campaign on the rising costs of food and fuel. He placed blame for the surging inflation on Democratic Party rule in Congress and on federal spending.
“More and more Nebraska families are finding it tough because there’s not enough money at the end of the month, while the left pushes more of the same bad policies by the failed politicians that created this mess in the first place,” Flood said.
Pansing Brooks, a former pro-choice chair of the Lancaster County Republican Party, spent much of her campaign arguing for the need to reach beyond party labels and work with whoever is willing on either side to do what’s best for the district and the country.
Triebsch, Pansing Brooks’ campaign manager, said his candidate made it clear that she was “playing to win” the November general election, not the special election. She was outspent 10-to-1 in television advertising, Triebsch said, proving that.
“We wanted to compete and do well in the special election to set ourselves to win in November,” he said.
New voters energized
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Friday in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, energized new voters, Triebsch said, the kind Pansing Brooks needs.
He said that some Sarpy County voters were confused about which of them could vote in Tuesday’s election. The district boundaries have changed since the last general election.
Triebsch also said he heard from some abortion-rights voters that they didn’t want to vote for Pansing Brooks and remove her from the Nebraska Legislature, which is expected to hold a special session this summer in hopes of further restricting legal abortion or even passing an abortion ban.
Had she been elected to the U.S. House on Tuesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts, an abortion foe, would have been able to appoint her successor in the Legislature.
The abortion issue clearly made a difference for some voters Tuesday. At a south Lincoln polling place in Pansing Brooks’ legislative district, voting was brisk at 5:30 p.m.
A poll worker said that turnout was more than half of the registered voters in the area around 25th and South Streets, thus a little less than turnout in a general election. Three voters waited in one line to cast their ballot at Westminster Presbyterian Church.
A trio of women and one man interviewed said they were more motivated to vote for their local state senator, given Friday’s Supreme Court ruling striking down the constitutional right to abortion.
“It makes me worried about the future of our freedoms,” said Andrew Reinhard, a state employee. He said he was worried that “more freedoms” will be struck down unless supporters of abortion rights, like Pansing Brooks are elected.
But another man said the ruling made it imperative that he voted for Flood, who has opposed abortion.
“I’m pro-life and I voted pro-life,” said James Rokke, a data analyst.
Another voter at the precinct, Nate Grasz of the anti-abortion Nebraska Family Alliance, said it was notable that Nebraska is hosting the first election in the post-Roe era.
“I’m sure (the ruling) has motivated both sides,” Grasz said.
Fortenberry departure motivated voter
Late afternoon voting was quiet at a polling place in Norfolk, in the northern part of the 1st District. Voters there didn’t mention abortion but were more focused on the overall views of the candidates.
A voter named Mike, who wouldn’t give his last name, said the number of people voting was smaller than he is used to seeing. He rode his bike to his polling place at St. John’s Lutheran Church. He said he was motivated to vote because of the vacancy created when former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry resigned in March, after being convicted of three federal felonies.
“I think somebody needs to replace Fortenberry, and I think Mike Flood is the best person to do it.,” Mike said. “He seems to know his stuff, and he’s pretty dedicated to it.”
Wendy Breuer of Norfolk had a straightforward goal in voting.
“Change. Let’s just get things back to normal,” Breuer said. “I’m raising kids in this world, so I’m ready to get things back to normal. I’m hoping everybody votes for my normal. I know Mike personally. I like their family. I like what he represents.”
Abortion may have tightened race
During Flood’s first stint as a state lawmaker, he helped pass what was then the nation’s most restrictive abortion law, outlawing abortion in Nebraska after 20 weeks. This year, he voted to pass the unsuccessful “trigger bill” to ban abortion in Nebraska if the Supreme Court reversed Roe.
He has said he would like to see Nebraska ban abortion and save the lives of unborn children.
Pansing Brooks opposed additional restrictions on abortion, including helping abortion-rights lawmakers to successfully filibuster a so-called legislative “trigger bill,” which failed by two votes.
Flood said the Supreme Court’s decision energized voters, but he’s not had the time to analyze who was more motivated, Republicans or Democrats. He said the decision’s timing may have played a factor in the closeness of the race.
“I think it’s certainly a factor,” Flood said. “People are certainly interested in where we are going as a state. I’m not against contraception. I’m not against in vitro fertilization. A lot of those messages were being spread falsely.”
Flood won despite Pansing Brooks winning in Democrat-rich Lincoln and Lancaster County. He did so the way the GOP has historically won the district, by posting big numbers in northeast Nebraska’s Catholic-heavy cities of Norfolk, Columbus and Fremont.
The margin of his win, coming days after the abortion ruling, might be enough to encourage national money from Democratic Party-leaning organizations to consider spending on the general election this fall. However, most political observers say the Democrats are defending too many seats and are more likely to spend on districts with more Democrats.
Flood said his first priority will be picking up constituent services for the people of the 1st District who have been without representation in Congress since Fortenberry resigned in March. Those range from helping people navigate the federal bureaucracy to answering questions from people who want to know why the government does what it does.
The Secretary of State’s Office aims to hold its canvassing board meeting July 15 to certify the special election results. Flood would be sworn in shortly after that.
1st District at a glance
June 27, 2022:
186,779 Republicans (45.7%)
119,291 Democrats (29.2%)
94,347 nonpartisans (23.1%)
6,783 Libertarians (1.6%)
958 Legal Marijuana Now Party (0.2%)
408,158 total registered voters
November 2020 (under the previous district boundaries):
195,379 Republicans (46.6%)
125,611 Democrats (29.9%)
92,239 nonpartisans (22%)
6,440 Libertarians (1.5%)
419,669 total registered voters
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