Democrats appear to have headed off GOP goal of gaining filibuster-proof majority in Unicameral

Fredrickson moves ahead of Dornan in pivotal Nebraska legislative race in Omaha

By: and - November 11, 2022 1:22 pm
Nebraska State Capitol Building

The Sower atop the Nebraska State Capitol (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — It looks like Nebraska Democrats may thwart an effort by state Republicans to obtain a filibuster-proof majority in the one-house Nebraska Legislature.

On Friday morning, absentee ballots submitted on Election Day were counted in Douglas County. Those new ballots moved Omaha mental health provider John Fredrickson, a Democrat, ahead of attorney Stu Dornan, a Republican, by 69 votes in Legislative District 20.

John Frederickson
John Fredrickson
(Courtesy of Fredrickson for Legislature)

If that result holds as expected after 204 provisional ballots are counted later this month, Republicans will have fallen short by one seat of gaining a supermajority of 33 seats in the 49-member Unicameral Legislature.

Dornan had been ahead

“It would take an electoral miracle to flip it back,” said Ben Onkka, Fredrickson’s campaign manager, projecting that Dornan would have to capture 67% of the provisional ballots — ballots that typically trend to Democrats.

Tallies on Election Night had put Dornan, a former Douglas County attorney, ahead by 122 votes for a seat now held by State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, an independent Republican who was term-limited.

But the counting of absentee votes favored Fredrickson.

Stu Dornan
Stu Dornan (Courtesy of Dornan for Legislature)

Gaining a filibuster-proof majority is important because it would be enough to overcome legislative maneuvering by moderates and liberals that have blocked several conservative initiatives. Those include state tax breaks for contributions to private schools, an abortion ban and allowing the carrying of concealed weapons without a state license or required training.

GOP made it a priority

Republicans had made gaining a supermajority a top priority in legislative races this year, and, at least on Election Night, it appeared a red wave was coming.

The new leadership of the Nebraska Republican Party held a rally on Wednesday, the morning after the election, where state GOP Chairman Eric Underwood celebrated securing a “filibuster-proof majority.”

But it didn’t materialize. If the vote totals hold, Democrats will hold onto enough seats — 17 — to mount successful filibusters, making it more difficult in 2023 to pass conservative bills.

On Friday, Underwood said the state GOP is “monitoring the latest developments in the vote counting totals for two razor-thin legislative races.” He said that votes still needed to be counted in each race and that recounts are possible. He hinted at a possible fight ahead.

“It is important for voters to know that their votes have been properly tabulated and that only legal ballots are counted in the final vote totals,” he said.

Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb said her party will be watching, too.

“The reality is that when voters look and think to themselves, ‘Is my vote going to matter?” in these legislative and school board races, it’s less than 100 votes that are going to be able to protect our public schools and reproductive freedom,” Kleeb said.

One note of caution: State senators don’t always vote party line in the officially nonpartisan Unicameral. For instance, some Democrats support school choice, and McCollister, a Republican, sometimes voted with his Democratic colleagues.

In addition, there’s some talk about changing the rules of the Legislature so that 30 votes, instead of 33, are required to overcome a filibuster. That would raise the bar to sustain a filibuster from 17 votes to 19.

One more round of vote-counting is required — that of provisional ballots that were cast on Election Day. But it’s unlikely the smaller number of ballots yet to be counted in the Fredrickson-Dornan race, 204, will change who wins.

The Douglas County Election Commissioner’s Office has said that provisional ballots will be counted Nov. 18.

There are also provisional ballots to count in Lancaster County, where one legislative race remains in the balance.

In District 26, Democrat George Dungan III expanded his lead to 179 votes over GOP candidate Russ Barger after the last-minute absentee ballots were counted there on Thursday.

Between 300 and 350 provisional ballots are to be counted later in that race, according to Lancaster County Election Commissioner David Shively. But Barger would have to capture the vast majority of those to overtake Dungan, which appears unlikely.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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 spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.