Leaders of Nebraska’s two main political parties had different takeaways from Tuesday’s primary election, with a Republican official seeing affirmation of his party’s leadership, while a leading Democrat sensed a gathering wave of change.
For Republican National Committeeman J.L. Spray, Tuesday’s primary election was a reaffirmation. Spray said the party’s candidates for state and federal offices made a good showing, and are well positioned for the fall campaign.
Meanwhile, Nebraska Democratic Chair Jane Kleeb said her party is ready to make significant gains, and linked candidate’s success to what she says is going on nationally. “I think the message was loud and clear that voters want to see women in office. And they selected a lot of really strong women like Jane Raybould for U.S. Senate and Kara Eastman and Jessica McClure for Congress, so we’re excited that we have a really strong and diverse statewide ticket,” Kleeb said.
Raybould, the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor four years ago, was expected to do well against her four lesser-known male opponents. But Kleeb said it was surprising Eastman defeated former Congressman Brad Ashford for the 2nd congressional district nomination, while McClure bested 2014 candidate Dennis Crawford in the 1st District. “People always expected Rep. Ashford and I think even Dennis Crawford to get through because of conventional wisdom of name ID. But I think what those two women showed is that if you really start connecting to voters on deep issues they care about, and really get back to the basics of knocking doors, that you can win elections,” Kleeb said.
There were no comparable surprises in Republican congressional primaries, where incumbent Sen. Deb Fischer, and 1st, 2nd and 3rd District Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Don Bacon, and Adrian Smith won renomination handily. Still, Spray said it was good there were some challenges. “We think it’s healthy to have contested primaries. People got to express their views and learn about other candidates. It wasn’t a rubber stamp. But at the end of the day, Sen. Fischer and our congressional delegation all performed very, very well. So it’s kind of reassuring heading into the general election that we’re on the same page,” Spray said.
And Spray took issue with the idea that voters were more attracted to women candidates this year. “I didn’t feel it, and to be honest with you, it’s more of a feeling. I didn’t feel an upsurge of youth vote. I didn’t feel an upsurge of gender vote either way. It felt like a pretty straightforward election cycle in that respect. And I’m not sure that differs from what’s going on nationally. I think it’s easy to talk about that and say that’s what’s going on. But the reality is we have a lot of interested voters in Nebraska who want to participate,” he said.
Nationally there appears to be a record number of women candidates, but many of them are running against established male incumbents, making their prospects of success in November uncertain.
Kleeb acknowledged the challenge of carrying over grassroots success from the primary into the general election, but is optimistic. “In the general election, you obviously have a lot more voters, so you’re talking about a much wider and much more diverse electorate of both Democrats and independents and even some Republicans that you need to win. But I’m confident that both Jessica (McClure) and Kara (Eastman) can reach those voters with the messages that they’re already talking about, which is making sure that everybody’s covered with health care, making sure that we are actually fully funding our public schools; making sure that we’re addressing things like climate change,” Kleeb said.
Spray predicted the Republican messages promoting economic growth, smaller and more efficient government will carry the day. And he suggested Eastman’s victory over Ashford may prove problematic for Democrats in the fall. “It probably reflects the strength of the Bernie Sanders side of the Democratic Party, which is a little more socialist, and whether Nebraska’s ready for that or not, I don’t know. But I think it also maybe expresses a little bit about the chairwoman (Kleeb) favoring that side of the equation, too,” he said.
Kleeb, who supported Sanders in 2016 but says she encourages official party neutrality in primaries, said the Democrats are open to people with a wide range of viewpoints. She contrasts the examples of the nominee in the 2nd congressional district with the party’s candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. “Certainly a more progressive Democratic voter is going to align with Kara Eastman, and perhaps a more conservative-to-moderate Democratic voter in our state is going to feel more aligned with someone like Bob Krist and Lynne Walz. But that is why I think the Democratic Party is stronger than the Republicans. We do not demand somebody fits a uniform mold in order to be part of our party,” she said.
Spray isn’t buying it. “Well, that sounds like a lot of poppycock. I guess we’ll see what their platform says, and what they’re going to run under as a banner and brand means on November 6. Whether the Democrats can express two different views of how the world should go and call it a big tent, I don’t know. But it seems to me that sometime, they’re going to have to actually choose positions and the voters are going to decide,” he said.
Those decisions are coming up a little less than six months from now.