Nebraska’s 2014 primary election wrapped up last night (see more coverage from NET News here). To take a look at some of the trends behind the results, NET News spoke with by Dr. Randall Adkins, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Pete Ricketts narrowly beat Jon Bruning in the Republican race for governor, and Ben Sasse took the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate last night. Did anything surprise you in those election results?
The thing that surprised me the most were probably the margins on those races. If you’d asked me yesterday what the outcome of the governor’s race was going to be, I could have told you it was going to be decided by 2,000 votes. I couldn’t have told you who was going to win. But on the Senate side, if you’d told me yesterday that Ben Sasse was going to win by 60,000 votes and carry 49 percent of the vote, I would have said you were crazy. I didn’t see that happening, I don’t think any of the polls confirmed that. He was leading in all of the polls we saw, but the margins were anywhere from 1 or 2 percent to 12 or 14 percent. So for Sasse, this is a really, really big victory.
Less than 30 percent of Nebraska’s voters turned out for the primary. Do you think that offered any additional challenges or advantages to candidates in Nebraska’s primary races?
Nebraska has an interesting voter registration phenomenon: we have a rather large number of people who register to vote as nonpartisans. Because of that, those people don’t realize they’re allowed to walk in and ask for, for example, the Republican ballot to vote. Because you have to actually go in and ask the precinct person for that ballot. So a lot of people don’t actually turn out to vote because they think their vote won’t matter in the primary. That probably rules out 25 percent of the people in Nebraska who would normally turn out to vote. The other thing that happens is when we don’t have a long list of people who are running, for example, a lot of the high profile Democratic races only had one candidate or maybe two candidates and maybe only one of them is actively trying to campaign—that suppresses Democratic turnout. But when we do have competitive races like the Senate and governor’s race on the Republican side, we expect to see those voters turnout. So we expected to see a bigger turnout on the Republican side. I think we saw about what we expected to see, maybe not as much as we expected to see. But mid-term election years are always a challenge for candidates and their campaigns when they don’t have presidential candidates at the top of the ticket. The benefit it gives them is for the people that are really organized on the ground, it really helps them if they can get their voters turned out. Because sometimes 1,000 or 2,000 voters, like we see in the governor’s race, can be the outcome of the race.
And going forward, do you think it will be hard for candidates or campaigns to keep donors and voters engaged through the general election, after intense primary races for governor and Senate?
I think those two audiences are a little different. I think it’s going to be a challenge to keep voters engaged. In America we have elections that are really long. Other countries have elections that encompass a total of five or six weeks. Our elections usually encompass more than a year, sometimes 18 months when candidates are actively campaigning. We’re going into a period here where for about four months, not many people are going to be paying attention. I wouldn’t be surprised though to see donors paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in Nebraska. I think Sasse will be able to continue to raise money and spend it pretty early. If the Democrats want to have a chance of taking him on at all, they’re going to have to get behind their Senate candidate, Dave Domina. He’s a smart guy and they can certainly do that but you’re going to have to see an influx of outside money coming in.
The one race I think is going to be very big this fall is the 2nd congressional district. Lee Terry won a real squeaker in a primary to a candidate that wasn’t very well-known. And I suspect what’s going to happen is the Democrats in Washington and those who support them are going to be paying a lot of attention to that race. And the beneficiary to that will be Brad Ashford, who will be Lee Terry’s primary opponent in the fall.
Check out more election reporting on the NET News Campaign Connection 2014 website.