Democrat Leirion Gaylor Baird takes GOP’s best shot, beats Geist to win Lincoln mayor’s race

State’s highest-profile Democrat wins handily despite record outside spending against her

By: - May 2, 2023 11:20 pm

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird hugs an attendee of her election night party with the Lancaster County Democratic Party. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Months of TV, digital and snail-mail advertisements painting the Capital City as some kind of criminal wasteland, and waves of billboards backing change in city leadership, weren’t enough to help Republicans boot Nebraska’s top elected Democrat from office.

Former State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln speaks to supporters at her Election Night party in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, a Democrat, won re-election Tuesday over former State Sen. Suzanne Geist, a Republican. Gaylor Baird prevailed despite Geist receiving help from both the state GOP’s political establishment and its populist base.

Gaylor Baird earned 54% of the unofficial final vote, compared to 46% for Geist. Lancaster County Election Commissioner Todd Wiltgen said the county had about 3,000 early voting ballots yet to count. They will be counted Wednesday. Such votes tend to follow the pattern of the early voting ballot results, which broke hard in favor of the mayor. They also have nearly 700 provisional ballots to count Friday. 

Victory ‘overwhelming’

“It’s overwhelming,” Gaylor Baird said seconds after taking the congratulatory call from Geist. “It’s wonderful. I’m so grateful to our community, to all these people in this room and all the thousands of people who came together to make this victory possible. It’s a victory for Lincoln, for our positive vision of what we’re trying to build for Lincoln.” 

The mayor said voters rewarded her work while in office, including spending record amounts on city streets, making Lincoln police the highest paid officers in the state, replacing aging fire stations and working to find a second source of city water.

Gaylor Baird said voters rejected ads funded by outside groups that distorted the reality that Lincoln remains a safe city. Two Geist supporters and their families funded most of the ads: Thomas Peed of Sandhills Publishing and U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb.

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird speaks with supporters at her election night party in downtown Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“I’m seeing people who love this community coming out and making a statement that this is a wonderful place to live, a safe community,” Gaylor Baird said. “We have a great quality of life and they want to keep it that way. And they are rejecting the negativity.”

During the campaign, the mayor painted Geist as extreme. She criticized Geist’s support as a state senator for legislative bills that would restrict gender-affirming care for minors and a potential abortion ban timed to when an ultrasound detects embryonic cardiac activity.

Geist backers want mayor to listen

Geist, asked what she took away from her campaign, pointed to a room full of supporters and said, “The majority of the people who are here I met on the campaign trail. Most of them are people I met because I knocked on their door, I went to their business, I met their employees. That’s what this race is about. There are citizens here that need to be heard, that want change and who want her (Gaylor Baird) to listen to their issues.”

Gaylor Baird said Tuesday she would keep helping Lincoln grow and prosper without leaving people behind because of who they love or what they believe. Nebraskans, she has said, need a place that governs and acts differently than the statehouse. 

The mayor also reiterated her support for abortion rights in a state that fell one vote short this year of banning abortions after an ultrasound detects cardiac activity. Geist backed that bill, Legislative Bill 626, as well as a near-complete ban in 2022.

Former State Sen. Suzanne Geist greets supporters at her Election Night party. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Gaylor Baird had said electing Geist might have made it harder to recruit and retain young talent by focusing on social issues.

Perception of public safety was key issue

Geist had said she wanted to avoid “divisive state issues” during the campaign and focused instead on city business. She spent much of her campaign highlighting concerns about violent crime, including shootings and homicides powered by gang-related activity. 

She had help from the Lincoln Police Union, which endorsed her bid and argued crime was worse in Lincoln than the official stats show. They said the city needed a mayor who would hire more officers and make them feel supported. 

Geist and the union criticized the mayor for joining Lincoln protesters after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police and limiting police responses to a city curfew, saying both decisions made it harder to recruit new officers.

The widow of police investigator Mario Herrera, the last Lincoln officer to lose his life in the line of duty, in 2020, wrote in a direct-mail campaign ad that Gaylor Baird fell short when officers and their families needed her.

Gaylor Baird shared police statistics throughout the campaign that showed the Lincoln crime rate at or near historic lows. She criticized Geist and the outside groups backing her bid for risking Lincoln’s reputation with dystopian ads that didn’t reflect residents’ lived experience.

State Sen. Suzanne Geist answers questions about her endorsement for Lincoln mayor by the Lincoln Police Union. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Other issues mattered, too

Geist also blamed Gaylor Baird for the lack of affordable housing, saying city regulations and code enforcement had become too bureaucratic and burdensome to developers and businesses. (The city approved a record number of building permits in 2021 and 2022, however.)

Gaylor Baird secured the backing of the Lincoln Fire Fighters Association, a union that typically helps candidates knock on voters’ doors. They helped Democrats and nonpartisans overcome Republicans’ narrow city advantage in voter registrations.

Both candidates raised record sums for the race, more than $1 million apiece. This contributed to an uncommon saturation of television ads — more than 7,000 campaign-related commercials since March, KOLN-TV of Lincoln reported this week.

A blue island in a sea of red

But in a year of conservative gains at the Capitol, the bluest-voting island in a deep red sea will get four more years of a Democratic mayor. Former U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns remains the last Republican elected as Lincoln mayor. He served from 1991-98.

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird speaks after being endorsed by the Lincoln Fire Fighters Association. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Nebraska Republican Party chairman Eric Underwood thanked Geist  on Tuesday for running “on a fantastic platform of strengthening infrastructure, ensuring public safety, and promoting economic development.” He said Geist changed the conversation in the Capital City.

Underwood praised Republicans for turning out in higher numbers than in 2019 and said they helped at least one City Council candidate and a pair of Airport Authority candidates win.

Still, the night belonged to Nebraska Democrats and Gaylor Baird. Neither lost ground in city elections.

Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb said Tuesday’s election shows Democrats are “stronger than we get credit.” She said winning took a mayor with a strong record of service, a unified party with grassroots support and a public that valued freedom and a level playing field.

“The Republican Party — not just in Nebraska but across the country – has become so extreme that voters of all political stripes are choosing candidates that bring hope and simple kindness to the table.”

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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.