Abortion vs. inflation could decide Flood-Pansing Brooks rematch this fall
Higher November turnout expected than for June special election
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, left, is running against U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb.this fall in the 1st Congressional District. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — The fall rematch of this summer’s special election for Congress between U.S. Republican Rep. Mike Flood of Norfolk and State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, a Democrat, will heat up next week.
Flood and Pansing Brooks will debate Sunday for the first time in their general election race, at 5 p.m. on Omaha’s KETV. Then on Tuesday, Pansing Brooks hits the airwaves with a TV ad. Flood’s campaign is gearing up for TV, too.
Both candidates are emphasizing issues that motivate different voters. Pansing Brooks is talking about abortion rights and health care. Flood is stressing increased costs of living, including inflation and rising interest rates.
A new district
Political observers expect a more competitive race than is typical in the 1st Congressional District, which includes Lincoln and much of eastern Nebraska outside of the Omaha area. The district leans Republican, but redistricting has made it slightly more competitive.
The Legislature swapped some of the 1st District’s rural voters for voters in two of Sarpy County’s major suburbs, Papillion and La Vista. Many Sarpy residents are used to voting in the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, not the 1st.
Both candidates said that as they have been hitting the campaign trail, they continue to speak to Sarpy voters who don’t know which House district they’re now in.
Flood beat Pansing Brooks 53%-47% in the 1st District’s slice of Sarpy, but her special election support outpaced how President Joe Biden ran in those same parts of Sarpy County during the 2020 presidential race, according to a data analysis by political consultant Missy Wigley, a former deputy director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Flood’s campaign has said Sarpy County remains conservative and predicts it will swing back his way. Flood said he expects to be able to drive up his numbers in northeast Nebraska with Columbus native Jim Pillen as the GOP nominee for governor.
What the special showed
This summer, Flood won the 1st District’s closest race in decades, beating Pansing Brooks by 6,200 votes. The special election sent Flood to Congress, where he is finishing the final six months of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s 2020 term.
Fortenberry resigned from office in March after being convicted of three felonies stemming from illegal foreign funds raised for a previous congressional campaign. Under federal law, only Americans can donate to campaigns for Congress.
Part of what made the special election closer is that Flood’s campaign had spent much of his war chest challenging Fortenberry in the GOP primary campaign, before Fortenberry resigned. Flood’s campaign listed about $1,000 in cash on hand after the special election.
Pansing Brooks, by contrast, spent sparingly on her May primary campaign. Her campaign also spent less than Flood on the special election, choosing to set aside more than $300,000 in cash on hand for the November rematch.
Both candidates have raised more than $1 million. Flood raised $1.382 million and spent $1.381 million, based on the latest federal campaign finance reports. Pansing Brooks raised $1.04 million and spent more than $686,000.
What’s different now
Now that he is a House incumbent, Flood has access to a wider group of national donors through House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. But outside Republican donors largely consider the GOP-leaning 1st District winnable without their help.
The district has nearly 68,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats. Fortenberry won his recent races by 20 percentage points or more. Flood, in the special election, beat Pansing Brooks by about 6 percentage points.
Pansing Brooks’ campaign narrowed the gap by securing nearly 58% of the vote in Lancaster County, her home county, where more than half of the district’s voters live. Flood won the race by winning big in northeast Nebraska, where he lives.
One Republican political consultant, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said Pansing Brooks would have to win more than 60% of the vote share in Lancaster County to have a chance. Her campaign staff said they think they can hit that number.
Timing was another factor that tightened the special election. The June 28 contest came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The Dobbs decision ended the national right to an abortion and sent the choice back to the states.
Flood, who authored Nebraska’s current restrictions, which ban abortions after 20 weeks, supported a “trigger bill” during this year’s legislative session that would have created a near-complete ban on abortions after the court reversed Roe.
The effort fell two votes short of passage because of a filibuster that Pansing Brooks and other Democratic senators led. Pansing Brooks spent much of the run-up to the special election arguing the importance of abortion rights.
In Congress, Flood has reiterated his opposition to abortion. He and his GOP colleagues opposed a Democrat-led effort to codify protections in federal law for birth control, citing concerns over religious freedom in covering contraceptives.
Many House Republicans, including Flood, have expressed support for a proposal to restrict abortion nationally to 15 weeks.
“People are comfortable with restrictions. She’s opposed every effort to have reasonable restrictions,” Flood said of Pansing Brooks. “She wants the government to pay for abortions. She’s been on the board of Planned Parenthood.”
Pansing Brooks and her campaign have said they aim to make abortion rights and reproductive health a central part of the race. They say the issues will motivate women to vote Democratic, including women in the Omaha suburbs who typically don’t.
“The abortion issue and women’s reproductive health, birth control, the ability for doctors and patients to make their own health care decisions and not forcing government mandates on health care, that’s one of the truly big issues,” she said.
Higher costs, inflation
Flood has focused his campaign on inflation, which has now crested at 9%, year-over-year, and the rising costs of household goods. He’s also targeted rising interest rates, which make borrowing costs higher for homes, cars and credit cards.
The latest 30-year mortgage interest rates are above 6.5%. As recently as two years ago, they were less than 3%. Flood blames the higher costs on increased federal spending during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says he’ll support steps to slow that down.
Economists have said new spending contributed to increased inflation, but they also blame the increase on higher energy costs stemming from the war in Europe between Russia and Ukraine and COVID-19-related supply chain issues and shortages.
“We’re in a recession,” Flood said. “The cost of groceries and gas and consumer prices are up. Highest inflation in 40 years. … My opponent thinks government is the solution. I think government is the problem.”
Flood said if people like how things are going under Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, they should elect his opponent. Those who don’t, he said, should vote for him. Pansing Brooks said this race is about Nebraskans, not Biden or Pelosi.
Pansing Brooks highlighted Flood’s vote against the Inflation Reduction Act, including its provision allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug costs for seniors. She said Congress needs to focus on health costs.
“We should be prepared to help with inflation every step of the way,” she said. “People are hurting.”
Health care, bipartisanship
Flood said he’s in favor of improving access to health care, including federal support for critical access hospitals and congressional efforts to increase transparency in billing.
Both candidates agreed on the need to reach across the aisle without compromising their principles. In separate interviews Friday, both criticized their opponent for being less bipartisan than they have portrayed themselves during the campaign.
Said Pansing Brooks: “People are sick and tired of the grenade launching, the finger-pointing. I plan to get to Congress and find 40 people of goodwill who will work for Americans.”
Said Flood: “My record has always been conservative. That’s a testament to the idea that I can take conservative positions and do it in a way that doesn’t attack the other side.”
Political observers expect higher turnout on Nov. 8 than during the special election. But experts disagreed over which issues would motivate more voters to show up.
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