By J.L. Schmidt
In less than two weeks, Nebraska voters go to the polls to begin sorting out the cast of characters for the 2019 Legislature and other statewide offices at the primary election.
There are six seats that have been term-limited and a handful that could have contentious races if Governor Pete Ricketts chooses to, once again, flaunt his personal wealth to derail some incumbents with whom he disagrees. Given the failure of his property tax proposal, that list may have grown.
Two senators have chosen to leave after only one term and two more are hoping to leave at mid-term by running for other statewide offices. Sens. Roy Baker of Beatrice and John Kuehn of Heartwell are calling it quits after one session. Sen. John Murante of Gretna is running for state Treasurer in a race against one other Republican. Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse is running for a seat on the Nebraska Public Service Commission against two other Republicans and two Democrats.
Term-limited Senators include Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, Burke Harr and Bob Krist of Omaha, Tyson Larson of O’Neill, Paul Schumacher of Columbus and Jim Smith of Papillion. Krist has switched his party affiliation to run as a Democratic candidate for Governor. He’ll face incumbent Pete Ricketts in the November General Election if each of them defeats challengers running for the nomination.
In his 10 years in the Legislature, Krist was a Republican. He switched to Independent briefly with the hope of mounting a third party challenge. Rather than facing an uphill struggle to obtain enough signatures to create that party, he switched to Democrat.
It will still be an uphill battle against a Ricketts organization that is flush with cash and donors, to say nothing of the power of incumbency. It’s a fine line between gubernatorial events and candidacy. In its first reporting period of 2018, Ricketts’ re-election campaign raised $589,185.87 from 743 unique donors, including $325,679 from individuals. Over the course of the 2018 cycle, the campaign has raised $2,289,955.17 from over 2,300 unique donors, according to a release from the campaign.
Several incumbent senators are in a three-way race in their primary battles. The top two advance to November 6. Sens. Theresa Thibodeau, Brett Lindstrom and John McCollister of Omaha and Laura Ebke of Crete each face two opponents in the primary. In Ebke’s case, Lt. Gov. Mike Foley has been campaigning for one of her opponents. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ricketts provide campaign funds out of his own pocket to support opponents in a couple of these races.
In another Omaha area race, Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston faces a challenge from former Sen. Steve Lathrop who sat out four years under the rules of term limits. Remind me again how the voters missed an opportunity to reject term limits, the worst idea ever in nonpartisan governance.
Of 13 incumbents seeking re-election, eight have challengers, five don’t. There are six people running for Kuehn’s vacated seat and six running for a shot at Larson’s.
North Platte Sen. Mike Groene faces a write-in challenge from Judy Pederson, a former member of the North Platte City Council and the daughter-in-law of former state Sen. Don Pederson. Like Groene, she is a Republican. The Legislature is officially nonpartisan but doesn’t often act like it.
In other races, Republican U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer faces four Republicans, four Democrats and one Libertarian in her primary. First District Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry has two Democrats hoping to advance as challengers. Second District Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Omaha has two Democrat challengers; one of them is his predecessor, former Representative and state Senator Brad Ashford. Third District Rep. Adrian Smith, a Republican, faces four Republicans and one Democrat in his primary race.
If you like drama, pull up a chair. It’s about to begin. But, above all else, get out there and vote!