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Nebraska Democrats hope abortion fury delivers rare House win

Four days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Patty Pansing Brooks almost became the first Democrat to represent Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District in more than half a century.

She lost to Rep. Mike Flood (R), a fellow state senator, by 6,234 votes in a special election on June 28 spurred by the resignation of nine-term Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R).

Now Pansing Brooks and Flood are set for a rematch in November’s general election. And the Democrat is hoping to use her opponent’s brief voting record in Congress against him, highlighting Flood’s opposition to federal protections for contraceptives, abortion and same-sex and interracial marriage. 

“We know a lot,” Pansing Brooks told The Hill. “I mean that special election was almost a gift because it’s given us the path to victory and helps us to understand what we have to do, where we have to be.”

A number of the House votes came in response to a concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas in the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, in which he suggested revisiting a number of other rights related to privacy. 

Pansing Brooks said the votes are also personal to her, as the mother of a 25-year-old daughter and two sons, one of whom is gay. She said her son told her that if marriage protections look to be in jeopardy, he and his partner could do a wedding quickly.

“But that’s not fair, I don’t want that to be quick,” Pansing Brooks said. “I want to be there; I want to be part of it. So it just, to me, this is heartrending times we’re in. It’s like a gut-kick on thing after thing.”

Flood, through his campaign, declined multiple requests for an interview. 

Todd Watson, who is leading the team helping the Nebraska GOP transition to new leadership, said the special election was significant because Flood won despite the national headwinds. 

Watson said Democrats were “highly motivated, highly charged” following mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, as well the Supreme Court ruling on abortion, and yet Pansing Brooks still lost. 

“I don’t think there’s any external forces that were really in our favor at that time, and we still kind of carried that day,” Watson told The Hill. “We’re looking forward to doing our part for the red wave and seeing significant change.”

Pansing Brooks said if she had another week after the court’s ruling on abortion, things might have turned out differently. 

“They hadn’t had a moment to take a breath and say, ‘Oh my gosh, our first vote. Our first ability to say not just no but heck no,’ ” she said.

But on Aug. 2, with more time to prepare, Kansans across the border rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state legislature the authority to restrict abortion. 

That momentum has continued for Democrats in Minnesota and New York who have outperformed President Biden’s 2020 results. This has fueled hopes Democrats will fend off an expected “red wave” of Republican victories. 

David Wasserman, the senior editor of U.S. House and redistricting for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told The Hill “it’s clear that Democrats’ energy level is up,” but he expects Republicans to have a larger advantage in the fall.

He also noted the Nebraska race is still rated “solid Republican,” though continued momentum in Democrats’ direction could cause reconsideration, which would take improvements in Biden’s approval rating and a further focus on abortion.

Wasserman tweeted Tuesday that Cook Political Report’s House outlook in May was a GOP gain of 20-35 seats, but “recent developments” have revised this to a 10-20 GOP gain with a Democratic hold in the House “not out of the question.”

Pansing Brooks ran a “robust campaign” where Democrats hadn’t run one in a long time, Wasserman said, tapping into anger in the four days after the Supreme Court’s ruling

“It was a good performance for Democrats, and it’s possible to win by losing sometimes,” he added. “This was a moral victory for Democrats.”

Other Democratic candidates in Nebraska also see cause for optimism from the closer-than-expected special election, including state Sen. Tony Vargas (D), who is looking to unseat three-term Rep. Don Bacon (R) in Nebraska’s 2nd District.

Like Pansing Brooks, Vargas said his strategy is emphasizing “pain points” for voters, including access to abortion and struggles to pay for rent, gas, health care and prescription drugs amid high inflation.

“That is what’s on the ballot here this November,” Vargas said. “That is going to be what turns the tide here in Nebraska’s 2nd District.”

Derek Oden, Bacon’s campaign manager, said his candidate was spotlighting similar “pocketbook” issues, as well as immigration and the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago. And he shrugged off the notion that abortion rights would be a decisive issue. 

“This idea that Roe v. Wade is just going to sort of totally drive up turnout and squash Republican energy, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case,” Oden said. “I think voters are still waiting to decide.”

Bacon beat Rep. Brad Ashford (D) in 2016 on the same ticket as former President Trump, and he went on to win in 2018 — a “blue wave” year — and again in 2020.

After the Nebraska special election and Kansans rejected the abortion amendment, Cook Political Report moved the second district from “likely Republican” to “toss-up.” 

John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the June outcome was a “good sign” for Democrats in November, even though the president’s party usually gets “shellacked” in midterms.

The last time Nebraska sent a Democrat to the U.S. House from the 1st District was Rep. Clair Callan, who won in 1964 (and then lost two years later). And though Republicans still have a heavy advantage in the district, Pansing Brooks may have the track record to reach beyond party lines. 

Pansing Brooks, an attorney finishing up her eighth and final year in the Nebraska legislature, was a Republican most of her life, which included a stint as co-chair of the local county GOP in the late 1980s. In 2008, however, she switched parties as her support for abortion and LGBTQ rights clashed with new party positions, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Flood served in Nebraska’s unicameral statehouse for 10 years, including as Speaker for six years in which he was elected the state’s youngest and longest-serving leader in that legislature. In 1999, before politics, he founded Flood Communications, which owns a host of local television and radio stations that cover statewide news. He is also an attorney.

Hibbing said that while Lincoln, the state’s capital city, is growing — helping Democrats, who do better in urban areas — overcoming GOP dominance in rural parts of the district is “too high a hill to climb right now.”

“Hope’s one thing but actually winning the seat’s another,” Hibbing said. “And I still don’t see Democrats having a good chance to do that, even with a bump that they’re getting because of the Dobbs decision or various other things.”

However, other leading Democrats are, perhaps unsurprisingly, more optimistic.

State Sens. Carol Blood (D), who is running for governor, and Machaela Cavanaugh (D), who is seeking reelection, see the special election as evidence people want the government out of private decisions.

“That’s true in Nebraska, it’s true in Kansas and it’s true across the country,” Cavanaugh told The Hill. “This is not a winning issue for anyone who wants to hinder women’s rights to reproductive health; it is a losing issue.”

Cavanaugh is one of two Democrats targeted by Republicans for voting against a proposed abortion ban this spring, which failed to advance in the unicameral legislature by two votes. 

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) announced on Aug. 9 that there would not be a special session on abortion after senators failed to garner the necessary votes, though Republicans likely would have had the votes had Pansing Brooks been elected to Congress. 

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said the election showed the effects of work on the ground, but she expressed frustration at the lack of national Democratic support for Pansing Brooks.

“We don’t need outside consultants or outside kind of magical tools that the latest vendors are selling,” Kleeb said. “What we need is resources from national party groups to actually believe and invest in what’s happening on the ground.”

A spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the committee is focused on the Vargas-Bacon match-up as the party’s “best chance at success,” and one of 33 seats the committee is seeking to flip blue.

A spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee said the margins of the special election were closer than anticipated, but that Democratic hopes for an even better outcome in November were “probably misplaced.”

Still, Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said there has been “some cause for concern” as the election focus shifts from President Biden’s unpopularity to talking about Trump again, with some Republicans in Congress lobbing threats of investigating the Justice Department and the FBI over its search of the former president’s resort property should they take the House chamber next year. 

Heye still envisions a “good night” in November, with Biden’s approval rating less than Obama’s was before the 2010 midterms, when Republicans saw a wave of victories — including a 64-seat pickup in the House.

“Most of the grounds should be fertile for Republican gains if they can stay out of their own way,” Heye said. “This is giving Democrats some hope and Republicans some concern, but that overriding approval rating for Biden still is a very significant factor.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Clarence Thomas Jeff Fortenberry Mike Flood Nebraska House race Patty Pansing Brooks
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