Large number of contested races spice 2022 elections for Nebraska Legislature

Outcome could determine whether issues like abortion and concealed carry will overcome filibusters

By: - October 24, 2022 5:45 am
Back of legislative chambers

Nebraska Unicameral Legislature (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraska is seeing a larger-than-normal number of  hotly contested campaigns for the State Legislature this fall, with multiple candidates raising more than $100,000 in donations.

The races could have major consequences for issues like abortion and concealed carry of firearms that have been blocked in the past by filibusters by at few as 17 of the 49 senators in the Unicameral Legislature.

The number of conservatives elected could also play a role in the vote in January to replace Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O’Donnell, who is retiring after 44 years.

Republicans are using the pursuit of a 33-plus super majority in the officially nonpartisan Legislature as a rallying cry. The Douglas County Republican Party is calling on voters to “join us on the road” to elect enough legislators to overcome filibusters they maintain are spawned by Democrats.

“For far too long, conservative bills haven’t been passed in the Legislature because we haven’t been able to overcome the 33-vote threshold,” stated a recent Facebook post by the Douglas County GOP.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Democratic Party is beginning each of its posts about its candidates for state office with the line: “Strong Democrats are running across our state.”

Jane Kleeb, the state chair for the Democrats, doesn’t see the GOP getting to 33. Republicans now hold a 32-17 advantage, so it would just take a flip of one or two seats to make a difference.

Filibusters the norm

While it requires only a majority of 25 senators to pass a bill, in recent years, filibusters have become the norm on controversial topics, and it requires a super majority of 33 to win approval.

Just this summer, an effort to call a special session to enact a ban on abortion in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade fell apart because Gov. Pete Ricketts could not round up 33 votes to approve a ban or a tougher restriction than current law.

Likewise, bills to allow concealed carry of handguns without a state license and training, and one that would provide tax breaks for donations toward private school scholarships, fell short of the 33-vote threshold in the 2022 session.

Filibusters often, but not always, break along party lines, but conservatives and moderates have also teamed up to stop liberal-leaning bills they don’t like.

“More and more voters, particularly in the Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy County area, aren’t buying into their extremist (Republican) agenda,” Kleeb said, which includes calling teachers “groomers” and pushing a consumption tax that would result in taxing groceries.

Pere Neilan, a political consultant and pollster, put the chances of gaining a 33-vote margin “possible but difficult.”

Neilan and Kleeb differed on whether abortion remains a powerful issue in the races.

Neilan said that the anger of abortion-rights advocates has cooled and that now the economy and inflation are top issues. Kleeb said if you talk to any woman or young person, the overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year persists as a huge concern.

Neilan said one outstanding feature of the 2022 elections is that so many candidates — 20 as of Oct. 4 — had reported raising more than $100,000 for their campaigns. That mark used to be rarely reached, particularly by challengers.

Both Neilan and another Republican pundit, Chris Peterson, said the high number of hotly contested races is another hallmark of the ’22 legislative elections. Usually, only a handful fit that description, but this year, up to 11 of the 25 contests could qualify.

“I would be hard pressed to go back and find anything near that,” Peterson said.

Here are some observations, provided by legislative watchers on both sides of the aisle, about the most watched 2020 legislative races:

Uphill fight for GOP against incumbents

In Omaha, three incumbent Democrats are seeking re-election: State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh, Wendy DeBoer and Megan Hunt.

Hunt, in north-central Omaha’s District 8, appears likely to defeat Republican Marilyn Asher, whom Hunt outpolled in the primary by nearly a 3-to-1 margin.

Cavanaugh, a member of a well-known Omaha political family, got less than 50% of the vote in the May primary — a traditional sign of trouble for an incumbent — though she outpolled her GOP opponent Christian Mirch by 900 votes.

It’s always tough to beat an incumbent, however, observers said, and that also holds true in DeBoer’s race.

DeBoer beat her GOP rival, Lou Ann Goding, by 500 votes in the primary but has amassed more than $300,000 in campaign expenditures and cash on hand. Goding, a former Omaha School Board member, has less than half that.

Lincoln race could flip

State Sen. Matt Hansen, a Democrat, is term-limited in northeast Lincoln’s District 26. In the primary, a Republican, attorney Russ Barger, was a surprise, edging Democratic public defender George Dungan III by about 300 votes.

But as of early October, Dungan had the fund-raising edge in a district that has traditionally elected Democrats.

Fur flying in Omaha’s District 18

A close race in District 18, in northwest Omaha, has featured a recent call by the Douglas County GOP for Democrat Michael Young to drop out of the race because he was charged, 16 years ago, with a domestic assault and because he is in arrears on child support payments.

Young, a former member of the Metropolitan Community College Board and a Democrat, has pushed back, pointing out that Mayor Jean Stothert pardoned him for the misdemeanor charge in 2018 and that he got behind on child support after losing his full-time job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is the type of politics we all hate,” Young said in a recent response, adding that he has a “positive, co-parenting relationship” with his children and is paying child support.

His Republican opponent, Christy Armendariz, said she would not have become a candidate if she had Young’s background. She said that conflicts should never be handled “in a violent manner.”

Young won a tight, three-way primary by 120 votes over Armendariz, a strategic sourcing specialist for Nebraska Methodist Health System. District 18 is a Republican-majority district that elected GOP gubernatorial candidate Brett Lindstrom to two terms in the Legislature.  

Two former senators seeking a return

Two former state senators, Danielle Conrad in Lincoln and Merv Riepe in the Millard/Ralston area, are seeking a return to the Legislature.

Conrad, the former head of the ACLU of Nebraska, is facing a fellow Democrat, James Michael Bowers, a social worker, in District 46, a solidly Democratic district.

Riepe, a retired hospital administrator and a Republican, won a four-way primary handily but polled less than 50% of the vote. Still, he’s favored to defeat Democrat Robin Richards, a business manager.

The post had been held by a Democrat, Sen. Steve Lathrop, who opted against a re-election bid. So Republicans see this as a probable flip.

Millard area seat could flip

It’s always difficult for appointed senators who have never run for election to retain their seat. And that is the cautionary tale for Kathleen Kauth, a Republican businesswoman appointed in June by Gov. Pete Ricketts to represent District 31 following the death of Sen. Rich Pahls.

Her Democratic opponent, teacher Tim Royers, ran a close second to Pahls in 2020. Some see this Millard-area seat as a possible pickup for the Democrats.

Three tight races in Omaha area

Democrat Angie Lauritsen is running hard against Republican Rick Holdcroft in the new legislative district in south and southwest Sarpy County, District 36.

Holdcroft, a Navy veteran, won the primary by less than 200 votes. Both he and Lauritsen, a small business owner, have campaign war chests approaching $200,000.

In the contest to replace term-limited GOP Sen. Robert Hilkemann in northwest Omaha’s District 4, business developer Brad von Gillern has a fund-raising edge. He defeated Cindy Maxwell-Ostdiek, who is nonpartisan, by a 53-47% margin in the primary.

Stu Dornan, an attorney and Republican, won the primary in central Omaha’s District 20 with 43% of the vote to replace GOP Sen. John McCollister, who was term-limited. But mental health professional John A. Fredrickson, a Democrat, has raised more than $150,000.

All-Republican, greater Nebraska races tight

North Platte banker Mike Jacobson was appointed to replace Sen. Mike Groene, who resigned. Jacobson was narrowly edged in the primary by Chris Bruns, a rancher and Lincoln County commissioner, in what is shaping up as an expensive race.

In east-central Nebraska’s District 24, Jana Hughes, a substitute teacher from Seward, and Dr. Patrick Hotovy of York ran neck-and-neck in the primary. They are seeking to replace Sen. Mark Kolterman, who was term-limited.

Northeast Nebraska’s District 40, where Sen. Tim Gragert declined a re-election bid, may produce a close race as well.

Niobrara rancher Barry DeKay, a former member of the Nebraska Public Power District Board, won a four-way primary with 36% of the vote. Crofton investment banker Keith Kube, who lost to Gragert in 2018, is running again. He narrowly won second place in the primary, but had outspent DeKay by about $30,000 as of early October.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.