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Now that the contentious 2017 legislative session is over, the 2018 election campaign has begun.

There are 23 legislative seats open, six of those due to term limits. That means 17 incumbents can potentially run if they want to take their chances that Governor Deep Pockets won’t try to oust them and buy another freshman class. There are sure to be some more conservative Republicans who want to take a shot at the so-called moderates.

Of course, the governor will be running and may actually face some primary competition. Who knows, the Democrats might even find a viable candidate and take a shot at winning the seat for the first time since Ben Nelson (1991-1999).

So, how do we know the election has already started? Governor Pete Ricketts has said he’ll be involved and likely endorse and support legislative candidates. Moderate Republican John McCollister of Omaha reports that robocalls in opposition to his re-election campaign have already started. Senator Roy Baker of Lincoln, another moderate Republican, said he has decided not to seek another term.

Six senators are term-limited. One is Democrat Burke Harr of Omaha, a vocal opponent of many of the ideas put forth this past session by Ricketts and the Gang of 27 – those Republicans who met before the session convened and decided how things were going to be run. Harr lost a chairmanship battle early on, but was instrumental in derailing the governor’s proposed tax plan.

Two of the term-limited Republicans – Sens. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft and Jim Smith of Papillion – carried the water on said tax plan. Brasch was chair of the Agriculture Committee and Smith led Revenue and has talked about running for another elected office.  

Also exiting is Bob Krist of Omaha, a moderate Republican who has talked about challenging Ricketts in the Republican primary. That would be an interesting race that could serve as a litmus test for what a real Nebraska Republican acts and thinks like.

Senators Paul Schumacher of Columbus and Tyson Larson of O’Neill are also done. Schumacher, often referred to as the professor, has become known for his thoughtful analysis of issues and his delivery of explanations in a manner not unlike the late and revered Senator Jerome Warner of Waverly, often referred to as the Dean of the Legislature. That’s a tall order and one that I am sure a humble Schumacher would deny.

Larson is, well he’s Tyson Larson. He lists his occupation as entrepreneur. He has been known to carry the banner for a number of “what was he thinking?” ideas, many of them gambling related. But, his proposal on regulating craft brewing – labeled as an attack on small town entrepreneurs by those in the business – was perhaps the most baffling.

And then there’s the incumbents in the even numbered districts. They range all the way from Ricketts’ appointee Robert Clements in District 2 - the banker from Elmwood who was tabbed to replace the highly controversial Bill Kintner from Papillion – to Matt Williams, a banker from Gothenburg.

The Baker (District 30) seat is wide open, as previously mentioned, because the retired school superintendent and consultant has decided to move out of state to be near children and grandchildren. We have a good indication

that McCollister, the moderate Republican from Omaha is running again because the campaign against him has started.

Three Lincoln Democrats, Sens. Matt Hansen, Adam Morfeld and Patty Pansing-Brooks face re-election. Laura Ebke of Crete, the only Libertarian in the officially non-partisan Unicameral, also faces re-election.

The rest are Republicans. Sens. Craighead, Friesen, Groene, Hilkemann, Hughes, Kolterman, Kuehn, Lindstrom, Rieppe and Stinner.

There may be a special session yet this year and a surely contentious short session next year that could change things. But the fate of the 23 senators – depending on whether they have crossed the governor – rests with the voters next year.

J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.

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