Legislative races range from close to nonexistent

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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October 6, 2020 - 10:51am

In this year’s election, 25 seats in the Nebraska Legislature – just over half the 49-member body – are on the ballot, and the races range from close to nonexistent.

On the front porch of Tarra and Ryan McGuire’s suburban Omaha home, sits a cracked stone tablet labeled “House Divided.” On one side’s the logo of the Green Bay Packers – Tarra’s team. On the other, the Chicago Bears – Ryan’s favorite.

Just in front of the porch are campaign signs – for Republican President Donald Trump and for Jen Day – a registered Democrat running for the Nebraska Legislature. That legislature’s officially nonpartisan, and this year’s races show some of the unconventional matchups that can produce. On this evening, Tarra McGuire’s hosting a “driveway party” for Jen Day. As kids play around on bikes, Day talks to half a dozen people sitting on lawn chairs about her campaign.

Legislative candidate Jen Day speaks at "driveway party." (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“I’m Jen Day. I’m running for Legislature here in District 49…Tarra was gracious enough to open up her home, or her driveway I guess, and let us come and sit and chat, because I think she and I feel very passionately about a few issues, in particular public education,” Day begins.

Day in particular criticizes proposals to allow tax credits for donations to private school scholarships

Ten days later, in the Papillion strip mall offices of the Sarpy County Republican Party, people gather to go door-to-door for Day’s opponent, Sen. Andrew La Grone. Volunteer Jim Anderson jokes with LabGrone that the dozen-and-a-half people on hand outnumber those who attended a recent listening session here with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s wife, Jill.

Sen. Andrew La Grone in Sarpy County Republican headquarters (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

La Grone says he’s running to reflect the values of the community.

“Especially with everything going on, definitely the top issue is standing up for law enforcement,” La Grone says.

La Grone adds he’ll oppose any effort to defund the police.

In the primary, Day, a gym co-owner, outpolled La Grone, a lawyer appointed to a vacant seat by Gov. Pete Ricketts, by 53-47 percent, making La Grone the only incumbent senator to trail in the primary.   

Their race may be hard fought, but that’s not the case in some other districts. In fact, in five, there’s only one candidate. Sens. Justin Wayne of Omaha, Steve Halloran of Hastings, Tom Briese of Albion and Steve Erdman of Bayard are running unopposed, as is former Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood of Norfolk.

(For a complete list of who's running for Legislature and other offices, click here. To see who's contributing to their campaigns, click here and search by the candidate's name).

Charlyne Berens, emeritus professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has written two books on the Nebraska Legislature, says races without competition reflect the power of incumbency.

“At every level of government in the United States the incumbent has an advantage. And we have a lot of incumbents running this year. Nineteen out of the 25 seats that are open are held by incumbents,” Berens says.

Berens says incumbents’ advantages include name recognition, fundraising, and having a record to run on, although that can obviously cut both ways.

The six seats with no incumbent were opened up by term limits, which restrict senators to two consecutive four-year terms. Berens says those limits also hold down, or at least delay, competition.

“If it’s hard to beat an incumbent, then it’s a whole lot easier to just wait until you know the seat will be open – you know there will not be an incumbent because there can’t be, according to the law,” she says.

And just because there’s an open seat, voters won’t necessarily have a choice between candidates of different parties, because the top two finishers in the primary advance to the general election. 

Omaha’s District 9 race pits two Democrats against each other: Omaha School Board member Marque Snow, and John Cavanaugh Jr. of the Douglas County public defender’s office.   

In Omaha’s District 11 race, it’s Papio Natural Resources District director Fred Conley against community organizer Terrell McKinney, both Democrats.

In two races Republican incumbents are being challenged by members of their own party.

In southeast Nebraska’s District 1, Sen. Julie Slama, another Ricketts appointee, is being challenged by longtime party worker Janet Palmtag.

And in the 43rd District in the Sandhills, incumbent Sen. Tom Brewer is being challenged by Cherry County Commissioner Tanya Storer.

Three other races for open seats, and a dozen other races for seats not opened up by term limits, the incumbent is being challenged by a candidate of another party, or an independent. But under Nebraska’s Constitution, their parties won’t be listed on the ballot. Berens says that challenges voters to do their homework on the candidates.

“It’s an easy fallback to look at whether they have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ after their name, not just because you yourself happen to be super, super partisan, but it gives you an idea where this person’s going to come down on a lot of issues. If you don’t have that, and you do need to pay more attention to what the person is saying, that has a lot to recommend it. Educated voters are something to be desired, I believe,” she said.

While party affiliation may help predict senators’ positions, it doesn’t necessarily determine things like committee chairmanships or votes on specific issues, unlike in other states or in Congress, organized on partisan lines.

One historical exception to Nebraska’s nonpartisanship comes during the redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years following the census. Currently, there are 30 registered Republicans, 18 registered Democrats, and one independent in the Legislature.

How this election changes that may have a big effect on the lines that are drawn next year, for the Legislature, for Congress and other offices, for the coming decade.




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