I saw my first political billboard today for the 2018 Legislature. Incumbent Patty Pansing Brooks has at least a couple along the edge of her central Lincoln district, and likely more elsewhere.
In case you didn’t know, it’s seven months until the May primary and 13 months until the November 2018 general election. But with a Republican majority in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, it’s important that Democrats like Pansing Brooks and moderate Republicans get their foot in the door early.
With Governor Pete Ricketts’ established behavior of funding challengers to incumbents with whom he disagrees, it’s important to start early and spend a lot of money. That, from the mouth of one of those incumbent Republicans who had the nerve to vote against Ricketts and his party line and was ousted after the Governor gave substantial contributions to his challenger, also a Republican.
Given that understanding, expect to see a longer campaign season than usual. For the record, that nonpartisan Unicameral is now comprised of 32 Republicans, 14 Democrats, 2 Independents and 1 Libertarian. The Republicans lost Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha who switched to Independent to mount a gubernatorial campaign in 2018.
Senators in the 24 even-numbered legislative districts are either up for re-election or ready to vacate their seats because of term limits.
Ricketts has replaced two Republican Senators this year. He recently named Theresa Thibodeau of Omaha to replace Sen. Joni Craighead in Omaha’s District 6. She applied for the job and has agreed to seek election to the seat in 2018. He skipped the list of applicants for this year’s other opening when Bill Kintner resigned. Ricketts picked Elmwood banker Robert Clements who wasn’t on the list.
The announced challenger in the Craighead district is Democrat Machaela Cavanaugh, a mother of two with more than 20 years in public service including a stint working in Washington, DC, for then Senator Ben Nelson. The Cavanaugh name is a familiar one in Nebraska politics as her dad, John, served as a U.S. Congressman for Nebraska’s Second Congressional District from 1977 – 1980.
I recently told a group of Central Nebraska Democrats that getting more Democrats or Independents elected to the Legislature is the best way to keep the body nonpartisan. There has never been an abundance of registered Democrats in the Unicameral, but there has been less party line and more cooperation in that body prior to the current bully pulpit Republicans.
Krist, the 60-year-old Independent candidate for Governor is already doing a statewide fly-around to get his name and face before voters. By mounting a nonpartisan bid for the office, he avoids a primary showdown with Ricketts. The Democrats have not picked a candidate for the office.
A retired Lt. Col. In the Air Force, Krist is a pilot who delayed his statewide campaign to fly workers and supplies to Puerto Rico as part of hurricane recovery efforts. He has been a strong moderate Republican voice in the Legislature as he faces his last year due to term limits. With 8 years under his belt and his ninth year coming up next session, he is the longest serving current senator next to Ernie Chambers who has been there forever – OK, 43 years.
It’s going to take cooperation from Democrats, Independents and disgruntled Republicans to get Krist elected. Can it be done? Let’s hope so.
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.