In Nebraska’s Sea of Red, few felt splash from ‘Republican wave’

Democrats appear poised to hold onto legislative filibuster

By: - November 15, 2022 5:45 am

A sign is posted outside of a polling site in central Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Nebraska Republicans, like their counterparts nationally, expected a rush of Election Day enthusiasm by GOP voters to drown out their Democratic opponents.

In this state, Republicans still won most of the state’s races, by dint of having a 260,000-person voter registration advantage. But they gained less ground than they anticipated from a predicted “red wave.”

One reason was that abortion politics after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision motivated more Democrats to vote than in a typical off-year election, political observers said. 

Another factor was a continuing divide among Republicans about how loyal their party should be to former President Donald Trump.

Republicans remained split after Trump-focused activists took over the Nebraska Republican Party. The party’s donations have dropped sharply since party leadership changed in July. 

This fall, many of the state’s largest GOP donors instead supported groups making independent expenditures and the Douglas County Republican Party.

“Tuesday’s elections were really a mixed bag,” said Rod Edwards, a Nebraska Republican political consultant. “I think the biggest story is missed opportunities for Republicans.” 

Nebraska Democrats appeared poised to hold off a filibuster-proof GOP majority in the Legislature but lost statewide and congressional races.

Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb said the party needs to improve turnout in Douglas and Sarpy Counties — where 53% of voters participated — and try to match higher turnout in Lancaster County, where 56% voted in 2022. The three counties are home to the state’s largest pockets of Democrats.

Here are some takeaways from the general election results:

Governor

Republicans came home to Gov.-elect Jim Pillen after a bruising primary in May. In the general election, Pillen grabbed a higher vote share at 60% than Gov. Pete Ricketts did in 2014 or 2018. Democratic State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue received 36%.

Nebraska’s two major party gubernatorial candidates are shown, State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, left, a Democrat, and University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, a Republican. (Blood photo courtesy of the Unicameral Information Service; Pillen photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

In fact, Pillen’s vote share is the highest of any first-time governor since at least the 1970s. Ricketts secured 57% of the vote in 2014 and 59% of the vote for re-election in 2018.

Former Gov. Dave Heineman won his first election in 2006 by a wider margin, but he had served in the office since 2005, when then-Gov. Mike Johanns was named U.S. secretary of agriculture.

Some political observers had expected Pillen, a hog farmer from Columbus, to pay a price this fall from supporters of Falls City agribusinessman Charles Herbster, who withheld his endorsement after ending the primary in second place.

But that didn’t materialize. Pillen also paid no price with voters after declining to debate his opponents during the primary or general campaigns.  

University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist John Hibbing said Nebraska appears to have bucked the national trend toward balanced results and appears to be getting more conservative.

“Some of this is Pillen,” Hibbing said. “Some of it is just voter registrations changing over time.”

The number of registered Republicans in Nebraska continues to rise, which could have contributed to Pillen’s strong results.

Several observers also expected more from two write-in candidates — David Wright of Ewing and Robert Borer of Lincoln — who campaigned to give dissatisfied Republicans other options in the governor’s race.

Wright and Borer combined to collect 0.87% of the vote, a number so small the Secretary of State’s Office or State Canvassing Board didn’t count how the votes split between them.

Omaha civil rights activist Preston Love Jr. was the last write-in candidate to secure enough votes to count, in 2020, when he secured 6.3% of the vote in Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race.

That Senate race was won by U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who is leaving Washington, D.C., to become the next president of the University of Florida. 

Pillen’s first major task as governor, beyond hiring staff and a Cabinet, will likely be deciding whether to appoint his top political supporter, Ricketts, to replace Sasse in the Senate.

Statewide offices

Democrats, by not fielding candidates in several state races, may have missed an opportunity.

The state’s second largest political party lacked candidates for secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general and state auditor.

Retired University of Nebraska at Omaha political scientist Paul Landow said voters who wanted another choice from the major parties weren’t given one, and it might have mattered.

Election results showed a sizable protest vote against GOP candidates running without a Democratic challenger. Minor party candidates received up to a third of the vote.

Kleeb said she and the party tried but failed to recruit Democratic candidates. She said they’ll try again next time.

“We just have to do better,” Kleeb said.

Republican Secretary of State Bob Evnen, after a GOP primary in which election deniers grabbed more than half of the vote, ran unchallenged in the general election.

Republican State Treasurer John Murante secured an expected 72% of the vote. The only option on the ballot was Libertarian Katrina Tomsen, who got 28%.

GOP Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers grabbed 70% of the vote for attorney general, but his only challenger on the ballot was Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate Larry Bolinger.

Lt. Gov. Mike Foley won back his old job as state auditor with 69% of the vote, easily defeating Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate L. Leroy Lopez at 19% and Libertarian Gene Siadek at 12%.

State Legislature

Record spending on state and local races of over $50 million wasn’t enough for Republicans to grow the party’s already sizable advantage in the Legislature to a filibuster-proof majority.

abortion rally
State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, a leading advocate for abortion rights, speaks at a post-election rally Nov. 9, 2022, calling for an all-out effort to retain abortion rights. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

GOP candidates and outside groups outspent most Democrats running for Legislature. Even so, a pair of races — one each in Lincoln and Omaha — are leaning toward the Democratic candidates and are likely to preserve the 17 votes necessary to filibuster the most conservative legislation. 

Democratic incumbents, including State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh and Wendy DeBoer, fended off well-funded GOP challengers.

But abortion-rights advocates cautioned against celebrating because pro-life Democrats have and might again vote with Republicans on a possible abortion ban or additional restrictions.

Nebraska outlaws abortions after 20 weeks. Last legislative session, Republicans fell two votes short of passing a so-called “trigger ban” that would have essentially outlawed abortion.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who helped lead the effort to filibuster the bill last session, warned on Twitter that she’s “never seen every Dem in the #NEleg agree on anything.”

In the Omaha-area’s 2nd District, the Republicans who won their races were more conservative than the moderate GOP senators who were term limited or left office, including State Sens. John McCollister and the late Rich Pahls, Republicans said. They hope those changes in the 2nd District caucus might increase the chances of passing previously stopped legislation, including tax credits for private schools. Democrats, in the end, flipped McCollister’s seat their way, with the election of John Fredrickson over Stu Dornan. 

One of the more interesting GOP-on-GOP races that went another way this fall was in North Platte, where Mike Jacobson, a more traditional Republican, beat Chris Bruns, who ran with the support of the new-look, more populist GOP.

All GOP state senators could be tested early by a push to eliminate secret balloting for the election of committee chairs. Many Republicans signed a pledge to do so with the Herbster-funded Nebraska First PAC.

Congress, 1st District

Democrats got another hard lesson about electoral math. Open seat or not, the Lincoln-heavy 1st Congressional District remains hard for them to win.

Pansing Brooks-Flood
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)

Democrats ran a strong candidate for Congress in State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, but saw her Lincoln support swamped by more conservative rural voters. 

The district, where voter registrations were more competitive after being redrawn last year, still has about 68,000 more Republicans than Democrats. U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb., won 58%-42%.

Flood beat Pansing Brooks by only 6 percentage points in a closer-than-expected special election this June, the closest 1st District race in decades. Many Republicans were complacent and stayed home.

Some Democrats, on the other hand, were motivated to turn out for the special election, which came two days after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

Abortion remained a factor in the general election, but Pansing Brooks struggled to paint Flood as extreme on abortion with suburban women. 

Flood, who co-sponsored the Legislature’s attempt to pass a “trigger bill” to ban abortions, succeeded in nationalizing the race, Democrats said. He had help from donors and outside groups that reinforced his campaign’s effort to brand his opponent “Patty Pansing Pelosi.”

Flood, who may or may not face a primary challenger in two years, posted a 16-point win that may make others think twice about running, observers said.

Former Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who was convicted of three federal felonies and resigned in March, won his first race by 11 points in 2004 and his second in 2006 by 17.

However, the 1st District had more Democrats in it in those days, including those in Dakota County, home to South Sioux City.

Congress, 2nd District

Nebraska’s most competitive congressional race in the Omaha area is starting to settle into a pattern that nearly matches the district’s 4 percentage point GOP registration advantage.

Bacon-Vargas photo
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., at left, and State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha are running for the 2nd District seat in the Omaha-area. (Courtesy of Photos/House of Representatives and Unicameral Information Office)

An analysis of 2nd District election results and voting patterns show U.S. Rep. Don Bacon did not secure more votes this year than in 2020 or 2018.

But the revised district map may have made it harder for Democrats to close the gap, with fewer persuadable voters in rural Saunders County than in the Sarpy County suburbs of Papillion and La Vista.

Bacon’s team did a strong job of creating a new county party infrastructure in Saunders County, the newest part of the district. He beat Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas there, 76%-24%.

Turnout by Democrats in Douglas County was lower than expected, at 53%. Democrats hoped abortion might motivate more suburban women to switch sides, and it did.

Vargas and outside groups worked to make abortion a defining issue. Bacon said advertising on the issue motivated his anti-abortion base of religious voters.

Both sides had outside groups attacking the other, but Bacon had more outside groups touting his work in Washington, D.C., than Vargas had touting his legislative record in Lincoln.

Bacon appeared to regain GOP voters he may have lost during the primary, when Trump criticized him publicly and called for somebody to challenge him. But the attacks may have helped Bacon hold onto his Biden-Bacon voters from 2020 that split the ticket in the 2nd District and gave both him and Biden more 2nd District votes than Trump.

Vargas, like Kara Eastman before him, struggled in Sarpy County, where Bacon lives. Vargas lost there 65%-35%, and his 51%-49% win in Douglas County wasn’t enough to overcome it.

Sarpy County, and now Saunders County, make winning difficult for Democrats in the 2nd District, Landow said. The district leans slightly Republican and tends to vote that way.

Congress, 3rd District

U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith
U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb. (Courtesy of Office of Rep. Smith)

U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., beat two nominal challengers, as expected, tallying 78% percent of the vote, over Democrat David Else (15%) and the Legal Marijuana Now Party’s Mark Elworth Jr. (6%).

Smith will find out soon whether his eight terms of seniority will pay off on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, where he is in position for a possible leadership role.

NU Board of Regents

A theme for the 2022 election cycle was that Ricketts and his financial support mattered, up and down the ballot. He backed Pillen, and Pillen is governor-elect.

Ricketts backed former State Board of Education member Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City, and she beat State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg in a University of Nebraska Regents race.

Ricketts
Gov. Pete Ricketts speaking at the dedication of a state office building in honor of Chief Standing Bear. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The governor spent $314,000 of his own money on a political action committee that funded ads attacking Wiliams as not conservative enough. Ricketts also donated $20,000 to Wilmot’s campaign.

Williams, who was endorsed by Pillen, argued that Ricketts was trying to influence management decisions at the university system and its flagship campus. 

State Board of Education

The push to motivate conservative parents to vote worked in some spots, helping improve GOP turnout in Douglas and Lancaster Counties.

A Republican slate of candidates for the State Board of Education won three of four races: Kirk Penner of Aurora, Sherry Jones of Grand Island and Elizabeth Tegtmeier of North Platte.

But the group fell short of its goal when Democrat Deb Neary in the west Omaha district survived a challenge from Republican Marni Hodgen.

Lincoln headquarters of the Nebraska Department of Education. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Neary’s win left Democrats with a narrow advantage in picking the next state education commissioner.

Republicans have warned that the board shouldn’t risk reviving proposed health education standards after the election. 

The proposed standards, the subject of harsh criticism by the GOP for how they advised schools to work with LGBTQ students, could result in legislative action, conservative senators have said.

A handful of conservative lawmakers have already called for an investigation of the Nebraska Department of Education. 

Several have discussed eliminating the board and putting the department under the governor’s control. Neary has said the board has no plans to revive the proposed standards.

Local races

Republicans overperformed in four public-safety related races in Lancaster and Douglas Counties. 

In the Lincoln-area race for top prosecutor, it appears Republican Pat Condon defeated Democratic State Sen. Adam Morfeld.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine endorses Nebraska GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen outside of the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha. He is flanked by Pillen’s running mate, Joe Kelly (left), and Pillen (right). (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

GOP Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner fended off a significant challenge from Democrat Jay Pitts. 

In the Omaha-area, former Omaha union leader Aaron Hanson defeated former Omaha Deputy Chief Greg Gonzalez for Douglas County sheriff.

Longtime Democrat-turned-Republican Don Kleine trounced Democrat Dave Pantos to win another term as Douglas County attorney.

Money from a pair of major donors, Ricketts and Sandhills Publishing’s Tom Peed, made a difference late in the Lancaster County attorney’s race and the Douglas County sheriff’s race.

Democrats said it was hard for Morfeld and Gonzalez to overcome late, six-figure ad buys supporting Condon and Hanson or criticizing their opponents.

In red-state Nebraska, it may have been hard to see the red wave. But it was there, in increased interest in races farther down the ballot. But Democratic voter interest was strong, too. And the legislative dam held.

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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 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.

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