The two candidates for Lincoln mayor in the nonpartisan 2023 city general election race are State Sen. Suzanne Geist, left, and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird. (Courtesy of candidates’ campaigns)
LINCOLN — Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird faces the test of her political career on May 2 after she and State Sen. Suzanne Geist advanced in Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary race.
The mayor, as expected, secured the largest portion of votes, 49% as of the final unofficial count Tuesday night. Geist finished second, with 34%. Nonprofit executive Stan Parker finished third, with 17%.
The main mystery Tuesday for Gaylor Baird was whether she would grab more than half of the votes cast — a standard for testing the strength of incumbents. The Lancaster County Election Commission still had 5,500 early votes to count Wednesday. Historically, those tend to break in the same way early votes did in earlier counts, which leaned to the mayor’s advantage.
That could be enough to push her past the 50% mark, which would bode well for her re-election chances in a city that has voted more Democratic lately than Omaha, political observers said. Lincoln has trended toward Democrats in local, state and federal elections in recent years, even as Republicans have solidified their statewide advantages.
Costly, bruising race ahead
But a lot can change during a monthlong sprint to the finish, with political advertising expected to swamp Lincoln’s airwaves, mailboxes and browsers. Gaylor Baird, Nebraska’s highest-profile elected Democrat, now has the undivided attention of the state’s Republicans, including two major donors who have prioritized unseating her.
Tom Peed of Sandhills Publishing and U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., along with a handful of others have already funded a six-figure barrage of attack ads against the incumbent using an outside group, Together Nebraska. The arrangement allows Geist to campaign at arm’s length from the attacks. But the top donors to the outside group are also among the top donors to Geist’s campaign.
Geist and Gaylor Baird have already set city records for fundraising and spending on a Lincoln city election. Geist has raised more than $1 million. Gaylor Baird was approaching that number, too, based on March campaign fundraising reports. Parker, who raised $65,000, said he didn’t seek out larger donations.
Democrats keep winning in Lincoln
The GOP dominates Nebraska politics outside of Omaha and Lincoln. But a Republican has not won a mayor’s race in Lincoln, the seat of state government, since Mike Johanns, who was elected in 1991 and re-elected in 1995.
Geist’s campaign got a boost in January with the endorsement of the Lincoln Police Union, whose leaders have said that she committed to hiring more police officers than Gaylor Baird, who made the department’s officers Nebraska’s highest-paid.
Her campaign has focused on fanning concerns about crime, making the city friendlier to local businesses and more quickly improving the condition of local streets. She mentioned all three issues during an interview after her celebratory speech Tuesday night.
Geist called for unity with Republicans who backed her fellow conservative candidate, Parker. She said the party needs to come together to challenge Gaylor Baird and end more than two decades of Democratic control at City Hall.
“I believe that people are ready for change,” Geist said. “They’re ready for something different. They’re ready for the city to get back to city business. … If you want public safety, good roads and a thriving business community, that’s what my campaign is about.”
‘A positive vision’
Gaylor Baird also had the backing of one of the city’s top public safety unions, the Lincoln Fire Fighters Association. Union leaders argued that she kept her word and built new fire stations and bought new rigs and equipment.
On Tuesday, the mayor said she was pleased Lincoln voters rejected the negativity about a growing capital city of nearly 300,000 people. She said they like a city that invests in public safety, economic growth for all and amenities that improve the city’s quality of life.
Gaylor Baird said her general election campaign would rely on the four years of work that she and her team had done. She said she would rely on “how safe this community is,” how much the city has grown and the opportunities it has helped provide for local families.
“I think it speaks so highly of the people of Lincoln, that the people in Lincoln are embracing a positive vision for our city. They like what’s been happening so far with the direction we’re headed, and they’re rejecting the … politics of division.”
Parker’s campaign did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
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