State Sen. Mike Flood won Nebraska’s special election Tuesday to represent the 1st Congressional District for the next six months. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Rural voters carried Republican State Sen. Mike Flood to a seat in Congress in Tuesday’s special election. But State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks’ better-than-expected results in urban and suburban counties could spice up the pair’s rematch this fall.
Flood collected more than 80% of the vote in five of the 1st Congressional District’s rural counties: Butler, Colfax, Cuming, Polk and Stanton. He also won more than 80% of the vote in Platte County (Columbus) and in Madison County (Norfolk), where he lives.
Pansing Brooks, who lives in Lincoln, tallied more votes in Lancaster County than other Nebraska Democrats running for the House in recent years. She won 57% of the vote in her home county, which has more than half of the district’s voters and most of its registered Democrats.
Flood and his team said after the win that he needs to perform better this November in Lincoln, where he served as Speaker of the Legislature. He said he did well in northeast Nebraska because people know him there from his work in Legislature and while running News Channel Nebraska.
Pansing Brooks and her allies said they know she can do better in the 1st District’s rural counties. The Lincoln lawyer said she needs to spend more time sitting down with rural voters and hearing more about concerns they want addressed.
Local political observers, including University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist John Hibbing, said Republicans appeared less motivated than Democrats to vote in the special election, because Republicans expected the GOP to win.
It had been 18 years since the 1st District seat was open. Former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., trounced his last few opponents. The next closest race to Tuesday’s was Fortenberry’s first, in 2004. He beat Democrat Matt Connealy 54% to 43%.
Fewer voters in the 1st District’s GOP-leaning counties voted in the special election than participated a month earlier in the May 10 primary election.
Voting in each of those counties was down by at least 18%, based on a post-election analysis done for Flood’s campaign. Additionally, 3% more voters showed up for the special election in Democratic-leaning Lancaster County than voted during the primary.
“The Republican voters were a little bit complacent this time,” said Jessica Flanagain, senior vice president with Axiom Strategies, a political consulting firm that works with Flood and other Nebraska candidates. “They’re used to having the seat, and I’m confident the margin will increase in November.”
Abortion was a factor
External factors late in the race encouraged more Democrats than usual to vote — ranging from Friday’s Supreme Court ruling reversing Roe v. Wade to hearings the House is holding on the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, political observers said.
Abortion was a factor, Hibbing said. So was the unusual timing of the special election, which drove down turnout and amplified the influence of more motivated voters on the outcome. About 27% of those registered in the 1st District voted.
“I think you really had to be motivated, and the Democrats were more so,” Hibbing said.
Abortion rights moved up on the list of priorities for many women the Democrats interacted with during the campaign, by texts, calls or knocks on the door, said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. She expects that interest level to stay elevated this fall.
“That’s the first question many voters will ask to decide whether someone is worth considering for their vote,” she said.
Flood opposes abortion. He helped pass restrictions that outlawed abortion in Nebraska after 20 weeks, and he tried to help the state pass a so-called “trigger bill” that would have banned abortion in the state after the Roe decision.
Pansing Brooks is an abortion-rights candidate who has framed attacks on abortion as attacks on women’s bodily autonomy. She has said it’s not a far climb from outlawing abortion to doing the same for same-sex marriage or certain methods of contraception.
Both candidates have said they are not as radical as the other side paints them. Flood said he wants Nebraska to make sure any abortion ban protects in vitro fertilization. Pansing Brooks said she wants the state to help mothers who choose to have their babies.
One Republican consultant said the GOP’s problem on the issue is that its voters are feeling happy and hopeful after the Supreme Court’s decision. Democrats, by contrast, are feeling angry and scared. Anger and fear are better motivators, the observer said.
Different race this fall
Flanagain said this fall’s race will focus more on economic issues like inflation, the farther voters get from the Roe decision. But she said more anti-abortion Nebraskans will be motivated to vote as they realize states still need to restrict abortion post-Roe.
Chris Triebsch, Pansing Brooks’ campaign manager, said abortion will remain important to many Democrats. Some of her supporters said they wouldn’t vote for Pansing Brooks in the special election because they were worried about losing her in the Legislature and having Gov. Pete Ricketts, an abortion opponent, pick her replacement.
A bill that would have banned abortions in Nebraska fell two votes short of passage last session.
Triebsch said the Pansing Brooks campaign thinks her vote support can improve in suburban Sarpy County, where she finished within 6 percentage points, and in exurban Cass County, where she secured 35% of the vote.
Redistricting made the Lincoln-centric district slightly more Democratic and slightly more nonpartisan than in 2020 by adding more of Omaha’s southern suburbs into the 1st District.
Both campaigns said potential voters in Papillion and La Vista did not know they are no longer in the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. The bulk of both cities have been moved into the 1st District.
Kleeb said Pansing Brooks can also close the gap this fall in rural Nebraska with outside investment in rural organizing from national Democrats, if they decide to help her. The aim is to reach enough people to lose in rural counties 70% to 30%, not 80% to 20%.
Pansing Brooks is meeting with the Democratic National Campaign Committee and others in the coming days, Kleeb said.
During the special election, Flood outspent Pansing Brooks by more than $300,000, based on campaign finance reports. The Pansing Brooks campaign said Flood outspent her on TV ads 10-to-1. Her campaign had more than $350,000 in cash on hand at the end of the campaign.
A former Nebraska Democratic Party official said Pansing Brooks and congressional Democrats should have spent more on the special election because they could have won. Triebsch said he understands the urge to look back but said Pansing Brooks restrained spending on the special election to focus on this fall.
“Given that last-minute enthusiasm, we could second-guess,” Triebsch said. “But we still feel like we are on the front end of that momentum.”
GOP has edge, Dems a chance
Republicans hold a 16-point advantage in voter registrations in the revamped 1st District. This fall, more 1st District residents will have more reasons to vote, said Richard Witmer, a political scientist at Creighton University.
Having the governor’s race on the ballot will help, he said. So will the typical November timing. Special elections, he said, are “just their own breed of cat.”
“It’s good news for Flood if turnout increases in the fall,” Witmer said. “He’s likely to win by a larger margin. If turnout is higher in the Lincoln area, she can keep it close.”
Also on Wednesday, Ricketts called for applicants to fill Flood’s soon-to-be-open legislative seat in northeast Nebraska’s District 19.
Applications from people ages 21 and older who have lived in Madison County or southern Pierce County for at least a year will be accepted until 5 p.m. July 8. The governor’s appointee will finish the remainder of Flood’s term, through early 2025.
Those interested can apply online at governor.nebraska.gov/board-comm-req. Applicants can include a resume, cover letter and other materials with their application.
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