Nebraskans facing deluge of political mail — the good, the bad and the ugly

Some candidates cry foul over the veracity of mailbox messages 

By: - November 3, 2022 12:38 pm

Mailers continue to pour into Nebraska mailboxes at a high rate. Shown here are some from the 2nd Congressional District in Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — No central clearinghouse counts the number of political mailers clogging Nebraska mailboxes during election season. 

But candidates say direct mail has increased during a record year of spending on state and local races. 

Mail numbers jumped this spring during the state’s costliest-ever Republican primary for governor, political observers said. They have stayed high leading up to Tuesday’s general election because of two contested congressional races in eastern Nebraska and a large number of competitive legislative races. 

Well-funded campaigns for the State Board of Education and local school board races, from both school choice advocates and people who support public education, also fueled the flurry of campaign literature in an unusual election year.

The increased volume drove up the number of questionable mailers, as well, both Republicans and Democrats said. 

Campaign mailers typically spin or stretch the facts. Most base their claims on kernels of truth. Some leave reality behind.

Examples from this cycle include:

  • The Nebraska Federation for Children, a group that has received much of its funding from school choice advocates tied to former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, sent a mailer with a photograph of a shirtless, long-haired man riding a playground pony. A second photo showed the same man shirtless with his eyes closed. The mailer implied that the photos were of Lincoln legislative candidate George Dungan, a Democrat. The photos were from Dungan’s Facebook page. Problem is, the photos don’t show Dungan — they show a friend of his. The Lincoln Journal Star spoke with the man pictured, who said he was shocked to see a decade-old photo of himself in a political ad. The group behind the ad told the Journal it had no reason to suspect it wasn’t Dungan. Dungan told the Nebraska Examiner this week that the man, a professional, now worries what will show up years from now when someone searches his name online. Political consultants said the effort appeared aimed at making Dungan seem like someone who was not serious.

Dungan’s response: “In terms of just pure deception, it was probably the worst I’ve seen. Not only were the pictures were not of me, I don’t believe any of the allegations were of me.”

  • Preserve the Good Life, which has received funds from trial attorneys, firefighters and the Nebraska State Education Association, sent mailers opposing several GOP legislative candidates who signed onto a pledge sought by GOP mega-donor Charles Herbster’s Nebraska First PAC. Each targeted candidate had pledged to get rid of secret balloting for legislative committee chairs in Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan Legislature. One of the mailers said Omaha legislative candidate Christian Mirch was the Douglas County chairman of former President Donald Trump’s campaign. He was not. A second mailer said former Omaha Public Schools board member Lou Ann Goding, a Republican, supported the consumption tax. She does not. Political consultants said the efforts appeared aimed at tying the candidates to Herbster and Trump in purple districts. 

Herbster’s response: “We asked every senator and candidate up for election one question: ‘Will you make all your votes as a member of the Nebraska Legislature public?’ That is all. They were not asked about any other issue. … To say anything else is a lie, and they are now lying to the voters of Nebraska.”

  • Mirch’s campaign sent a mailer swiping at his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, that said, “Cavanaughs support Mirch.” But the Cavanaughs featured, Omaha Public Power District board member Mike Cavanaugh and Metropolitan Utilities District board member Tim Cavanaugh, are no relation to the senator. She posted a response on Facebook Oct. 24, saying she has the support of her entire family and included a photo of her extended family. Mirch said he was proud to have the endorsements from people he respects who understand energy policy and called their last names “an added bonus.” 

Cavanaugh’s response: “I feel like I equate it (enduring mailers each election cycle) to having a baby. You go through it and it’s this whole enormous thing. You kind of forget how horrible it was. Then you go through it again.”

  • Cavanaugh’s campaign sent a mailer claiming credit for supporting over $1 billion in tax relief, from Legislative Bill 873. She co-sponsored a tax break on Social Security that made it into the final bill. But the legislative record shows she never voted for the final package at any step during the process. On the mic during early rounds of debate, she said she opposed parts of the bill, and she worked with Democrats to filibuster the package. She told the Examiner she would have voted for the bill’s final passage but didn’t make it back to the legislative floor in time. Her mailer cites a letter she filed with the Clerk of the Legislature saying she would have voted for the bill if she could have. State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, a Republican who backed the bill in earlier rounds, filed a similar letter with the clerk. Cavanaugh said she and Slama missed the vote “by like a minute.” 

Cavanaugh’s response: She said her opponent and the GOP are “attacking me for a technicality,” but described the decision to call out her votes as “fair game.”

  • Defending Main Street sent a mailer attacking Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas for “voting to give himself a pay raise & give you a tax hike.” Vargas, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., in the 2nd Congressional District, supported a ballot measure on a constitutional amendment to raise future state senators’ annual salary from $12,000 to $24,000. Vargas proposed increasing income taxes on Nebraska’s highest earners. That bill never made it out of committee.  

Vargas’ response: “It’s tough when one side isn’t committed to the facts. But people are getting sick of the mailers. I’ve had people say they’re voting for me because they (the mailers) are so bad.”

  • Vargas’ campaign sent a mailer saying Bacon’s anti-abortion bill would “leave victims of rape and incest with nowhere to turn.” It said Bacon’s bill “bans abortion when the life of the mother is at stake.” H.R. 1011, which Bacon backed in 2021, would have banned abortion and contained no explicit exceptions. Bacon has said the bill’s sponsor said it was written to leave room for states to carve out exceptions. Bacon has said he supports exceptions for the life and health of the mother. Vargas has said he supports abortion rights. He said he does not support abortion until birth but has not specified what limits, if any, he would accept.

Bacon’s response: “I am not the one with an extreme position on abortion. Tony is. Tony won’t say where he stands.” 

Political consultant Kyle Clark said direct mail is “different this cycle because people are trying to cut through the noise.” The GOP governor’s primary left a lot of voters fatigued, he said, so grabbing attention has gotten harder.

Headlines, photos and messages have about seven seconds to catch a voter’s eye before a mail piece hits the trash, Clark said.

“They need to stand out a bit,” he said.

Hyperbole helps mailers grab attention, said Randall Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Mailers are also more easily targeted at different slices of the electorate, he said, including by age, gender, voting frequency and personal interests. 

Direct mail is one of the top methods of reaching voters, behind meeting a candidate and canvassing door to door, observers said.

Increased spending by outside groups and more interest from donors in races down the ballot are contributing to a glut of campaign literature.

Political polarization is hitting more state and local races, said Joan Blauwkamp, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

“National partisan dynamics have filtered all the way down, informing how people vote on school board,” she said.

Problem is, voters have no easy way to sort fact from fiction, and many don’t want to, said Dona-Gene Barton, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“From a political psychology standpoint, facts don’t really matter,” she said, citing research. “People want to find things that confirm what they already believe.”

Those who do want to cut through incomplete information and misinformation will have to check reputable sources, including local reporting and voter guides, Adkins said. 

“I think I’d tell them that there’s probably a nugget of truth and a flood of rhetoric,” he said. “Historically, it’s nothing new.”

Blauwkamp said she tells people to think about the competence of the candidates first.

“Past behavior is a much better predictor than a mailer,” she said. 

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said she worries that the most outlandish mailers feed into the negativity many Nebraskans feel toward politics. The risk, she said, is fewer people voting “because they don’t have trust that anything good will come out of it.”

Todd Watson, political director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said concerns about mailers are being overblown. Voters, he said, have been dealing with campaign literature for centuries.

“They’ll be fine,” he said.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.