Nebraska’s top five political stories in a tumultuous 2022

Two resignations, a special election and record campaign cash

By: - December 31, 2022 5:45 am
Fortenberry guilty

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, flanked by his wife and other family members, speaks to reporters after the guilty verdicts. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Having a congressman convicted of federal crimes is enough to make any political year in Nebraska wild. 

But the state met that mark in March, and the year was just getting started. 

Here is the Nebraska Examiner’s take on the state’s top five political stories of 2022:

Fortenberry convicted

A federal jury in California found nine-term U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., guilty after a trial in mid-March.

U.S. District Courthouse in Los Angeles where U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s trial was held. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Prosecutors said the Lincoln congressman misled or lied to federal agents about illegal foreign funds raised for his congressional campaign. He has appealed the conviction on three felony charges. 

Fortenberry resigned from office at the end of March, although it came too late to remove his name from the primary election ballot. 

Republican State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who stepped in to challenge Fortenberry after charges were filed, won the GOP primary in May.  

Special election confusion

The timing of Fortenberry’s exit forced Nebraska to hold a separate special election June 28 to fill the 1st Congressional District seat for the remainder of Fortenberry’s current term in 2022.

It was the state’s first special election to fill a U.S. House seat since 1951. Early estimates for the state and local costs of the extra election: $500,000.

The election was a confusing one for some suburban voters in Papillion and La Vista. The Nebraska Legislature’s redistricting plan had moved more of Sarpy County from the 2nd Congressional District into the Lincoln-heavy 1st District. 

And the campaign turnaround was short — seven weeks after the May primary.

Flood defeated Democratic State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln by only 6 percentage points, compared to the 20-point wins Fortenberry had recorded in previous elections. 

One factor: The special election came just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade in its Dobbs decision, overturning national abortion rights, which amplified the issue in the race and motivated more Democrats to vote. 

Pansing Brooks is an abortion-rights advocate who helped Democrats filibuster a potential abortion ban in the Legislature that Flood sponsored.

While the special election was tight, Flood defeated Pansing Brooks in November’s general election by 16 points.

Costliest governor’s primary 

The end of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ tenure drew nine GOP candidates into a bruising GOP primary race to replace him.

gop candidates
Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidates, from left, Charles Herbster, Brett Lindstrom and Jim Pillen, at a candidate forum in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Ricketts, who is term-limited, endorsed and campaigned aggressively for the eventual winner, Jim Pillen. A University of Nebraska regent and Columbus-area hog producer.

Former President Donald Trump endorsed multi-state agribusinessman and Trump donor Charles Herbster, appearing at a rally about a week before the primary in Greenwood. Trump surrogates, including Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski, served as campaign consultants for Herbster.

The three strongest GOP candidates raised a record $28 million total for the primary, setting a new mark for state and local races in Nebraska and funding a torrent of negative ads about Pillen and Herbster.

The negativity later turned on a third candidate, State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, who built momentum as the top two sniped at each other. 

Ricketts confirmed at the time that he and others had helped fund outside groups targeting Herbster and Lindstrom. Herbster, who largely self-funded his campaign, regularly attacked Pillen and his record in ads.

The race was jostled when the Nebraska Examiner published a report in April about eight women alleging that Herbster had inappropriately touched them, which attracted national attention.

Herbster denied the allegations and filed a defamation lawsuit against the first woman to come forward by name, State Sen. Julie Slama. He also ran political ads attacking the story. Slama countersued him for defamation and sexual battery. In October, both agreed to drop their lawsuits

Political observers said Pillen won by campaigning in the state more often than Herbster, whose former campaign staffers complained about how little time he spent on the campaign trail.

Observers also attributed the win to the blitz of negative ads funded by Ricketts and the outside groups. Pillen was criticized by some for choosing not to debate during the primary or general election campaigns. But he won the general election against Democratic State Sen. Carol Blood by 23 percentage points.

Leadership changes disrupt state GOP

Ricketts’ push to help Pillen win the GOP primary angered a mix of Republicans who had grown unhappy about the role the governor’s well-funded hand plays in Nebraska politics.

Nebraska Republicans gathered Saturday in Kearney, Neb., for their state convention. They ended up ousting the state party’s leaders. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Trump-era populists, along with Republicans who said Ricketts and his political team had alienated them over the years, organized a takeover of the Nebraska Republican Party during the state convention in Kearney in July. 

Ricketts supporters who ran and largely funded the state party apparatus were ousted.

They were replaced by a group that wants to move the party farther to the right, including a tighter embrace of Trump. They say they are more willing to criticize and embrace primary challenges to GOP officeholders in order to hold them to party orthodoxy. After the general election, they supported a push by a losing legislative candidate in Lincoln who unsuccessfully sued to try to force a hand recount of ballots. 

New state GOP Chairman Eric Underwood and his team have seen donations decline, but they say they are doing a better job of engaging rank-and-file Republicans. 

The first election results under their watch were mixed. Many of the highest-profile GOP winners worked with Ricketts’ team, including Pillen and Flood. U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who faced fire from Trump and some in the state GOP, won re-election against Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas by 3 percentage points.

Late this year, the Nebraska Democratic Party faced some infighting of its own about the lack of candidates recruited to run statewide, how the party is managed, how the party helps or hinders candidates and who should lead it.

Former Nebraska Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey criticized his fellow Democrats for recruiting and supporting too few centrists who he argued can win elections in a conservative state. The fight continued after state party Chair Jane Kleeb described his public comments as hurtful to the party’s work. He responded by asking to have his name removed from the state party’s annual fundraising dinner. The party agreed.

Sen. Ben Sasse answers questions from the University of Florida’s Board of Trustees before they vote on him to serve as UF’s next president on Nov. 1, 2022. (Screenshot/University of Florida)

Sasse resigns his Senate seat

Then there is Nebraska’s opening seat in the U.S. Senate, which is being vacated because Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has been hired as president of the University of Florida.

Sasse shocked national pundits more than Nebraskans when he decided not to finish his term. Sasse had told local reporters he didn’t want to retire as a senator.

But Sasse, the former president of Midland University in Fremont, Neb., has said he could not turn down the opportunity to lead one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious public universities.

Sasse focused much of his Senate tenure on the “future of work” and what that might look like during the coming disruption expected by artificial intelligence. 

Sasse has frequently been critical of Trump, and some Nebraska Republicans have speculated whether he decided to leave before being beaten in his next GOP primary. But Sasse, who regularly voted with his party, outperformed Trump statewide in Nebraska in 2020.

Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks in Wayne, Nebraska. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Others are irritated that Sasse will be working for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the only GOP candidate outpolling Trump.

Sasse’s resignation is effective Jan. 8. Gov.-elect Pillen, who takes office Jan. 5, will choose the replacement. Most political observers expect Pillen to pick his top political patron, Gov. Pete Ricketts. 

Ricketts acknowledged in December that he is among those who have applied for the job. He lost a Senate bid in 2006 to U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, the last Nebraska Democrat to hold the job. 

Whoever Pillen picks will face election in 2024. In a rare quirk, because of when Sasse resigned, both of Nebraska’s Senate seats will be up for election in the same year. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., has said she plans to run for re-election.

That will also be a presidential election year, in a national political environment that could give 2022 a run.

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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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