Race To Watch – Nebraska Senate

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There are over 500 House, Senate and Governor races taking place on Election Day 2018. With that many contests, each with a varying mix of unique and correlated factors at play, we’re bound to be shocked at a few results come November 6th.

What are the factors necessary for a race to surprise? One is a lack of polling, or at least a lack of accurate polling. This is where a hoped for surge in female, young and Latino voters could overwhelm forecasts nationwide.

One race that shouldn’t be competitive is the Nebraska Senate race, but we have very little current information on it. The only two polls are extremely outdated (from January and last November), and show Republican incumbent Deb Fischer with about a 14% lead over her challenger, Democratic Lincoln County Councilmember Jane Raybould.

Those numbers could very easily still be accurate, but it’s not difficult to envision a closer race at this time. Sen. Fischer has been a reliably conservative vote, which in a red state like Nebraska (cue your college football jokes here) is mostly a positive. However, she’s offered little more than token opposition to Donald Trump’s tariffs, which have hit Nebraskan hard. There’s a reason they’re called Cornhuskers.

A key tenant of Raybould’s campaign is support for their agricultural economy and small businesses. She’s also talked about preserving Social Security and Medicare, while Republican leadership in Washington has started circling around cuts to those programs.

Money is obviously a factor in any race. As an incumbent, Sen. Fischer has a war chest of over $2 million dollars, while Raybould had about a quarter of that. In a lot of states that may be a deal breaker, and limit the challenger’s efforts to get her message out.

But this is where the lack of expensive media markets works to Raybould’s advantage. A few hundred thousand dollars in Nebraska can go a long way. If Raybould wants to attack Sen. Fischer for her views on tariffs in the western part of the state and her support of Brett Kavanaugh in the more moderate Douglas (home of Omaha) and Lancaster (home of Lincoln and the University of Nebraska) counties, she has the means to do so.

Can Raybould Win?
Money is helpful, but votes are what counts. And while it’s not easy to build a winning map for a Democrat in Nebraska, this seat was held by Sens. Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson for nearly a quarter century before Fischer defeated Nelson in 2012.

So what does a map for Raybould to pull off the upset look like? There are three congressional districts in Nebraska. The third district is the western and central parts of the state and heavily Republican. It usually votes over 70% for the GOP. But this area has felt the brunt of Trump’s trade war, and may not be as motivated to vote given Sen. Fischer’s lukewarm support of those policies and the lack of other competitive races on the ballot. I’m sure she’d never say it, but a lower turnout here helps Raybould’s chances.

The second district is made up of Omaha and the surrounding areas, and is a very closely split swing district. Republican Don Bacon won by 1% in 2016 against a Democratic incumbent. President Obama even netted an Electoral College vote by carrying the district in 2012 (Nebraska and Maine split their elector votes by district).

Demographics also point to faster growth here than the western part of the state. A Raybould win would require larger turnout here than elsewhere in the state, most likely fueled by female voters unhappy Sen. Fischer never seriously considered opposing Kavanaugh.

The third district is home to Lancaster County and the University of Nebraska, as well as the ex-urban and rural areas surrounding Omaha and Lincoln. Nearly half the vote in the district comes from Lancaster and population grown has it trending up (46% in 2014, 48% in 2016). While it’s still a generally conservative area, Hillary Clinton won the county by a fraction of a percent in 2016. Needless to say, that will have to happen again for Raybould to have a chance.

Turnout Is Key
Let’s say turnout is down from the presidential year of 2016 across the board, but holds better in NE-2. There’s also a competitive race for Congress and those voters are somewhat less directly affected than the 1st and 3rd districts from the tariff issues, which may depress turnout in those locations.

Here’s a potential voter breakdown by district with 75% of 2016 turnout in NE-2, 70% in NE-1 and 65% in NE-3. It also assumes a slightly higher percentage of male voters in NE-3 than the two eastern districts:

NE votes

To win the seat, Raybould needs to win women statewide and hold up well among men in Douglas and Lancaster counties. Let’s say she wins:
–70% of women in Lancaster and NE-2
–65% of women in the other NE-1 counties
–45% of women in NE-3

–40% of men in Lancaster and NE-2
–35% of men in the other NE-1 counties
–30% of men in NE-3

NE Raybould

Are these numbers likely? Probably not. Are they feasible? Heck if I know.

There’s polling out now showing Trump’s approval being underwater with women by 30 points. He’s likely doing better than that in a more uniformly white state like Nebraska, but it’s not difficult to imagine women everywhere voting more Democratic and in larger numbers than normal.

In reality, this forecast has Raybould winning the 1st district, which seems very unlikely. But it also has her losing women in the 3rd district, which may be where she can really surprise. The numbers above also have women casting just below 52% of the total ballots, and if that number is closer to 55% things could change.

This race is a stretch. But Trump’s tariffs have hurt Nebraskans in their pocket books and Sen. Fischer has barely offered token opposition, and she just disappointed a lot of women the same as Susan Collins did. A Raybould win be a surprise, but it wouldn’t take as much as you’d think to make it happen.

If you live in Nebraska, you can still register to vote here.

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