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OMAHA — Tuesday is Election Day in Nebraska, a civic test that political nerds who love to vote have been preparing for since at least January.
Others are just now tuning in, the voters who keep politics at an arm’s length until the last minute.
For them (and anybody else who needs a refresher before hitting the ballot box), the Nebraska Examiner put together this review.
Nebraskans already know that 2022 has been a record year for fund-raising and spending on state and local politics.
The state’s costliest Republican primary for governor powered the jump. University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen won it.
This fall, he faces State Sen. Carol Blood, a Democrat running hard but who raised six figures, not Pillen’s eight.
Pillen in the general election has stuck to his primary strategy of campaigning in smaller-group settings across the state.
Blood did small groups, too, hosting town-hall meetings where she gave her pitch and let voters ask questions.
The fall race’s biggest fight concerned Pillen’s decision not to debate. He called debates theater. Blood called them vital.
Because they didn’t debate, the Examiner arranged interviews and asked both candidates the same questions so voters can compare.
One of the Q&As most interesting exchanges concerned the future of K-12 education and property tax relief:
Pillen wants to divide the same pie of state aid to education so every district gets the same amount of baseline aid per kid.
He argued his approach would help ease the property tax burden that he said is disproportionately felt in rural areas.
Blood said Pillen’s plan would raise property taxes in districts serving impoverished students, if the state spends the same.
She said the state should fully fund state aid and cut unfunded mandates the state places on schools and local governments.
Conservatives see an opening to grow their advantage, with a number of moderate Republicans being term limited this year.
Today, there are 32 registered Republicans in the Legislature, one short of the super-majority of 33 needed to clear a filibuster.
Democrats, meanwhile, are counting on a strong early vote and a push by abortion rights advocates to fend them off.
Their aim: Preserve the 17 votes the minority needs to stop or force changes to bills the majority wants to pass.
Key races this year are centered in the Omaha and Lincoln areas.
The GOP is trying to unseat two Democratic incumbents in Omaha, State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh and Wendy DeBoer. Both Democrats and their GOP opponents, Christian Mirch and Lou Ann Goding, are knocking on voters’ doors like it’s a local race for Congress.
The GOP is counting on flipping a seat in the Ralston-Millard area now held by Sen. Steve Lathrop, who is retiring. Former State Sen. Merv Riepe, a Republican, is favored there.
But Democrats have said they think they can flip a seat in the Millard area left vacant by the death of Sen. Rich Pauls.
Tim Royers, a teacher who ran second to Pahls in 2020, is facing off against State Sen. Kathleen Kauth, who was appointed to the seat by Gov. Pete Ricketts after Pahls’ death.
If the GOP gains a filibuster-proof majority, it could impact several issues, including how the Legislature designs voter ID requirements, if the public passes the ballot initiative.
The fight to beat or retain the filibuster, plus the churn from term limits, has boosted spending to record levels.
For the second straight cycle, 20 or more legislative candidates raised more than $100,000 to win a seat paying $12,000 a year.
No Democrats challenged Republican nominees for Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Attorney General or State Auditor.
So Secretary of State Bob Evnen is running unopposed. GOP State Treasurer John Murante faces Libertarian Katrina Tomsen.
In the race for Attorney General, GOP Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers is running against the Legal Marijuana Party Now Party’s Larry Bolinger.
For State Auditor, Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, a Republican, faces Libertarian Gene Siadek and L. Leroy Lopez of the Legal Marijuana Now party.
NU Board of Regents
A GOP-on-GOP race this year for a seat on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents has gotten contentious.
Ricketts put $20,000 of his own money behind Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City, a former member of the State Board of Education.
He also put $314,000 into a political committee that has run ads against her opponent, State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg.
The ads claim, among other things, that Williams is a “Republican in Name Only (RINO).”
Williams, who has pushed to direct funds toward workforce housing in rural areas, has pushed back on the claims, maintaining that he has a conservative voting record.
He has said the heavy spending by Ricketts and others aims to replace the current chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Ronnie Green, and NU President Ted Carter.
The state party endorsed Wilmot, while NU Regent and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen and Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers have endorsed Williams.
State Board of Education
A movement to motivate conservative parents to vote with fears about sex education and social studies has reached Nebraska.
Leading the charge is a group of four GOP candidates running as a slate for State Board of Education.
They are Marni Hodgen of Omaha, Kirk Penner of Aurora, Sherry Jones of Grand Island and Elizabeth Tegtmeier of North Platte.
They are running against Democrats Deb Neary of Omaha and Danielle Helzer of Grand Island, nonpartisan Helen Raikes of Ashland and Republican Robin Stevens of Gothenburg.
Each candidate has raised at least $30,000, the former high-water mark for State Board races outside of Omaha.
The GOP slate, backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and other school choice advocates, has argued that the State Board had no statutory authority to set standards on health education, so they should not have considered drafts the board did not pass.
The slate candidates say they want to focus more attention on English, math and science.
But they’ve spent much of their campaigns talking about critical race theory, sex education and whether trans kids should be allowed to play sports outside of their gender at birth.
Some hosted screenings of the movie “Mind Polluters,” which alleges a discredited conspiracy theory that teachers are organizing to boost left-wing politics and sexual ideas.
People backing the other four candidates, including the state teachers union and donors supporting public schools, have described the slate candidates as conspiracy theorists and political extremists.
Slate candidates and their defenders have said the proposed standards on health education would have exposed children to topics in sex ed too soon and to some topics best left to parents.
Opposing candidates have said the slate’s anti-educator rhetoric makes it harder to recruit and retain teachers. Advocates for LGBTQ students say the tone of their campaigns could put kids at risk.
Both sides say they want to address a shortage of teachers and paraeducators and improve state testing. The board will have to come together to hire the state’s next education commissioner.
U.S. House of Representatives — 1st District
Nebraska has three incumbent members of Congress running for re-election this cycle. One is newer than the others.
U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb., won a June special election to serve the last months of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s term.
Fortenberry resigned in March after being convicted of three felonies from foreign funds raised illegally for his campaign.
This fall is a rematch of the special election between Flood, of Norfolk, and State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.
He won that race by 6 percentage points, the closest margin in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District in decades.
The race could hinge on Sarpy County voters in Papillion and La Vista. This is their first year in a redrawn 1st District.
Flood, a former Speaker of the Legislature, has argued that Pansing Brooks is more partisan than she portrays herself.
He, like Nebraska’s two other House Republicans, argue they will act as a check against spending by national Democrats.
Pansing Brooks, a former chair of the Lancaster County GOP, has said women can’t afford Flood’s politics on abortion. Pansing Brooks supports abortion rights.
Flood sponsored a bill last legislative session that that would have banned most abortions in Nebraska. He wrote Nebraska’s law banning abortions after 20 weeks.
U.S. House of Representatives — 2nd District
Once again, the Omaha area’s 2nd District is home to one of the nation’s most competitive congressional races.
This time, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., of Papillion, faces Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha.
Both men are trying to paint their opponent as too far out of the mainstream to represent a politically split district.
Bacon has criticized Vargas’ state record on taxes, including a proposal to raise income taxes on Nebraska’s top earners.
Vargas has criticized Bacon’s willingness to consider changes to Social Security and Medicare — and his opposition to abortion.
Bacon co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment that would’ve banned abortion federally.
He has since said he knows a full ban could not pass and would be willing to make progress toward that goal with a 15-week ban.
Vargas has said the decision should be between a woman and her doctor and has not specified what limits, if any, he supports.
Bacon, like Flood and much of the House GOP, has made the core of his race the fight against inflation and rising costs.
The congressman said he voted against the Biden administration’s stimulus spending out of worries that it wasn’t needed.
Vargas criticized Bacon for voting against the American Rescue Plan Act that capped insulin prices for seniors on Medicare.
Bacon has emphasized his bipartisan bona fides, emphasizing his vote to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Vargas has done the same by highlighting his vote for final passage of the state’s largest-ever tax relief package.
Redistricting has replaced Bacon’s home base of Papillion and La Vista with Saunders County, which also votes Republican.
It’s unclear who that might help, or how. Most race raters consider Bacon the mild favorite, but many see a toss-up.
U.S. House of Representatives — 3rd District
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., of Gering, faces Democrat David Else of Overton and Legal Marijuana Now Party member Mark Elworth Jr.
But the biggest question the seven-term Smith faces Tuesday is whether he can continue his streak of securing 70% of the vote.
Nebraskans will also be watching whether his years of service on the Ways and Means Committee could lead to a chairmanship.
That powerful committee writes the nation’s tax code. No Nebraskan has ever chaired the group.
Smith has said being chair would help him advance favorable trade policies for Nebraska’s agricultural products.
Nebraskans will be voting on a pair of statewide ballot initiatives on Tuesday, both of which might pass.
One of them, Initiative 432, would require Nebraskans to show a valid picture ID to vote.
The other, Initiative 433, would raise Nebraska’s minimum wage over time to $15 an hour and index it to inflation.
Advocates of Voter ID have said passing the measure would help rebuild confidence in the accuracy of the state’s elections.
Opponents have said it would disenfranchise elderly, poor and minority voters who are more likely to lack state IDs.
If voters approve it, the Nebraska Legislature would be tasked with deciding how it is implemented. Backers say the Legislature will help fund IDs for people who can’t afford them.
State senators would need to decide how and whether IDs could be verified during the early voting process and for voting by mail.
Supporters have said people could photocopy their IDs or take a picture of them and print them out.
Critics of Voter ID have said not every Nebraskan has access to a photocopier or printer and said it would add another hurdle.
On minimum wage, advocates have argued the need to boost pay for working Nebraskans to keep up with inflation.
They have said others could see their pay increase as well, because employers compete for talent.
Opponents have argued raising the minimum wage now could make inflation worse, and reduce the number of available jobs.
They’ve also argued that the free market should decide what people are paid and whether a raise is warranted.
Voters will also weigh in on a proposed change to the state constitution, Amendment 1, which would allow Nebraska cities and counties with airports to use public funds to grow the number of commercial flights offered to and from a given community.
Proponents have said the change would affect nine airports at first, allowing their governing boards the ability to guarantee a minimum amount of revenue to incentivize an airline to add commercial air service. They said other states offer airlines such guarantees.
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