LINCOLN — Nebraska’s first election following the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion ruling offered an eye-opening glimpse of the issue’s power to drive voters and affect political outcomes.
True, Republican State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk won Tuesday’s special election to fill Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District seat, as expected.
But Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln came closer than any 1st District Democrat has done in decades. She ended up with nearly 47% of the vote in the two-way race and plenty of optimism about closing the gap to win a general election rematch in November.
Kevin Smith, chair of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science department, said he would expect Democrats to be encouraged by the outcome even though their candidate lost.
“The closeness of the election was a genuine surprise to a lot of people,” he said. “The 1st District has not been considered competitive before.”
People are also reading…
He and representatives from both campaigns attributed the outcome at least in part to the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. They said the new ruling motivated Democrats and like-minded independents to get out and vote at greater rates than Republicans.
“I definitely think the left was upset and fearful,” said Jessica Flanagain, a general consultant to the Flood campaign. “That’s a great motivator.”
She said the Supreme Court rulings against gun restrictions and in favor of prayer by school officials, as well as the hearings focusing on the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol also energized Democrats.
Chris Triebsch, campaign manager for Pansing Brooks, said the abortion ruling clearly affected turnout to his candidate’s benefit. As evidence, he said, the campaign heard from numerous people and got numerous donations in the wake of the decision.
The June 24 ruling has allowed bans or severe restrictions on abortion to take effect in 10 states already, while putting abortion rights in jeopardy in 19 others, including Nebraska.
Under legislation Flood introduced and shepherded to passage in 2010, Nebraska currently allows abortions until the 20th week after fertilization.
But Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he wants to bring lawmakers back for a special legislative session to enact a ban on abortions. A proposed ban with no exceptions fell two votes short during this year’s regular legislative session. It is unclear whether abortion opponents can muster enough votes to succeed in a special session.
Triebsch said the prospect of a special session may have dampened support for Pansing Brooks among people concerned that, if she won the special election, the governor would appoint an abortion-rights opponent to replace her in the Legislature. Pansing Brooks was a leader in fighting the proposed ban during the regular session.
Still, voter turnout in Lancaster County, which is dominated by left-leaning Lincoln, was almost 35% and the number of voters exceeded the number who cast ballots in the May primary. Pansing Brooks won the county and got three-fourths of her total votes from it.
Flood won the other 11 counties or partial counties in the district, all of which saw fewer voters turn out for the special election than in the primary.
The lowest turnout — 16% —was in Sarpy County, where last year’s redistricting created confusion among voters. Both campaigns reported that many voters were unsure if they lived in the redrawn 1st District or the Omaha-focused 2nd District. The 1st District includes Bellevue, Offutt Air Force Base, La Vista and most of Papillion.
Across the district, voter turnout for the special election was nearly 28%, similar to the statewide turnout in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 primaries. This year’s primary, which featured a hotly contested GOP gubernatorial race, had 34% turnout.
Flanagain said she is confident the picture will look different in November, when Flood and Pansing Brooks will vie for a full term as 1st District representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. The special election decided who would serve the remaining months of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s term.
Fortenberry, a Republican from Lincoln, stepped down March 31 after being convicted of three felonies, including two counts of lying to federal agents and one of concealing illegal campaign contributions. He was sentenced to two years of probation, including community service and a $25,000 fine. The sentencing was the same day as the special election.
Flanagain said she expects Republican turnout will be higher for the general election. Turnout statewide was 58% in 2018, the last general election without a presidential race, and 48% in 2014, the next-to-last one.
A couple of factors may have affected Republican turnout last week, she said, including possible complacency by Republican voters used to runaway wins in the district. She also said people may not have been attuned to voting in late June.
In November, she expects voters’ focus will have shifted away from abortion to other national issues, such as inflation, gas prices and shrinking 401(k) accounts. She said she expects abortion will lose some of its motivating power by then because she anticipates the court ruling will lead to less dramatic changes than abortion-rights supporters fear.
“The reality is that Mike Flood is a much better fit for this district than Patty Pansing Brooks,” Flanagain said. “Mike’s going to have a significantly increased margin.”
Triebsch and Smith, however, said they think abortion will remain a key motivator in November. Triebsch said the issue will play out through multiple court cases across the country and through coverage of the potential for a potential special session in Nebraska.
“We’re still on the front end of that momentum as people become more aware of the full impact” of the ruling, Triebsch said. “I think people are very worried.”
He said he expects Pansing Brooks will gain support as more people in the district learn about her. He said her roots in Lincoln helped her win Lancaster County, as did the campaign’s limited television ad buy.
Triebsch said the campaign conserved its money during the special election to focus more on November. A report from Beacon Media, a political advertising firm based in Washington, D.C., shows that Flood has outspent Pansing Brooks more than 10 to 1 on television advertising so far.
Smith said he thinks the abortion ruling will not fade away as a motivating issue. But he’s not ready to predict whether that would be enough to push Pansing Brooks over the top, noting that Republicans still have the registration advantage in the district.
Republicans accounted for 46% of registered voters in the 1st District as of June 1, while Democrats accounted for 29% and another 23% were registered nonpartisan. The rest belong to the Libertarian or Legal Marijuana NOW parties.
“I’m a little skeptical about reading too much into the results of a special election,” Smith said. “They’re kind of like these one-off, weird things. The betting money is still on Flood.”