Provisional ballots boost Nebraska Dems’ margins in urban races

GOP holds onto wins in public safety races in Douglas, Lancaster Counties

By: - November 18, 2022 2:56 pm

A Lancaster County early voting drop box sits outside of the Lancaster County Election Commission in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — In the end, voters in Nebraska’s most populous counties helped Democratic state senators hold onto the ability to filibuster legislation they oppose. 

On Friday, the election commissioners in Douglas and Lancaster Counties finished the counts of provisional ballots from the Omaha and Lincoln areas that needed to be verified.

The filibuster survives

As a result: The legislative filibuster lives — for at least two more years — if Democrats stay unified when they vote. Republicans will need 33 votes to pass controversial legislation in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. (The Legislature doesn’t typically vote along party lines.)

Democrats continue to hold 17 of 49 seats. Republicans hold 32.

Floor of the Nebraska Legislature
The floor of Nebraska’s unique Unicameral Legislature. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)

“Just like at the national level, Republicans thumped their chests all cycle claiming they would take out even Democratic incumbents when in the end (Democrats) proudly held the line,” Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said in a statement.

John Fredrickson made history Friday as the first openly gay man elected to the Legislature, beating out former Douglas County Attorney Stu Dornan by 82 votes, 50.2%-49.8% in Legislative District 20.

He thanked his family, his local campaign staff and his supporters for giving him the chance to make sure “Nebraska is a place where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.”

“Representation matters,” he said. “When we have diverse perspectives at the table that represent and reflect our state, we make better decisions.”

In Lancaster County, Democrat George Dungan survived a serious challenge from Republican Russ Barger and a wave of outside spending in Legislative District 26 in Lincoln, winning 51%-49%. 

Dungan called the campaign “a long road” and said in a statement that “the Legislature is no place for extremism.”

Nebraska Republican Party chairman Eric Underwood  said the state GOP is encouraging Dornan and Barger to request recounts. Both races’ results fell outside of automatic recount territory, so the campaigns themselves would have to pay for the costs.

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

Dornan’s campaign manager, Bill Protexter, said the campaign has no plans to request a recount.

Counts boost Dems

Democrats gained ground in the last round of counting in Douglas and Lancaster Counties, but not enough to flip a single race. Democrats tend to vote provisionally more often than Republicans. 

The latest counts narrowed the winning margins for Republicans in the state’s most competitive races. 

In the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., saw his Election Day win of 4 percentage points erode.

Derek Oden, Bacon’s campaign manager, said they expected a tight race but knew “voters wanted a sensible check and balance and a workhorse who fights for the district.” Bacon, he said, is ready to get back to work and “grateful for the voters’ trust.”

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

Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas closed to within about 2 percentage points, posting a similar result to nonprofit consultant Kara Eastman in 2018, during her first of two runs against Bacon.

Meg Mandy, Vargas’ campaign manager, said the final vote counts “are a testament to the strategic campaign we ran” and Vargas’ “strength as a candidate.”

“He came very close, despite unfavorable circumstances — a new map that includes rural and small-town Nebraska, in a year when the environment was bad for Democrats nationally, and being outspent 2 to 1, with more than $5 million of misleading attack ads,” Mandy said.

Local races tighten

Republican Douglas County Sheriff-elect Aaron Hanson, an Omaha Police Department sergeant, saw his lead of 1,662 votes shrink to 1,102 votes over Democrat Greg Gonzalez, a retired OPD deputy chief. Republican Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine also beat Democrat Dave Pantos 57%-43%.

And Republican Lancaster County Attorney-elect Pat Condon’s roughly 1,000-vote lead over Democratic State Sen. Adam Morfeld shrank to 781 votes in the end.

Nebraska political consultant Jessica Flanagain described the Republicans’ public safety wins “incredibly significant.” The senior vice president of Axiom Strategies helped with Hanson’s and Kleine’s races and helped handle six figures in outside spending TV ads and mail against Morfeld from a group called Together Nebraska. The ads attacked Morfeld’s lack of courtroom experience.

She said voters rewarded Hanson’s work in the field as an officer, Kleine’s job performance as a prosecutor and Condon’s experience. She called Condon’s win “an incredible upset.”

“Public safety and integrity clearly transcend partisan divisions,” she said.

Morfeld, in a statement, conceded defeat, saying he fell just short in a race where 110,000 votes were cast.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, left, a Democrat, and University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, a Republican, competed for governor. (Blood photo Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Service; Pillen photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

“It was painstakingly close,” Morfeld said. “Ultimately, we could not overcome the nearly $500,000 in attack ads, mailers, and misinformation.”

GOP holds ground statewide

In statewide races, little changed. Republican Gov.-elect Jim Pillen’s tally against Democratic State Sen. Carol Blood finished at 60%-36%. 

The final margin in the 1st District congressional race between Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Flood and Democratic State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks finished at 58%-42%. 

Smaller rural counties will finish counting and reporting their provisional ballots over the next couple of weeks, but those tallies are not expected to move results as much as in the more populous counties. Sarpy County had 489 provisionals that have been counted, county election officials said. They will be added to the results early next week. 

The State Canvassing Board meets Dec. 5 to compile and discuss the results and order a recount if any are warranted. In Douglas County, the legislative race between Fredrickson and Dornan moved outside of recount territory. In Lancaster County, Condon’s win over Morfeld fell just outside of recount territory, as well.

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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.