Nebraska primary election: What to watch with competitive congressional and presidential contests on ballot

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Nebraskans will head to the ballot box Tuesday to vote in both congressional and presidential races, with all of the Cornhusker State’s seats in Congress up for reelection, and the fate of the 2024 presidential race could rest in the state’s hands.

West Virginia, Maryland, and Nebraska will hold congressional and presidential primaries on Tuesday. Though former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have secured enough delegates from their respective parties, many states still have not voted, and both parties’ conventions, where both are expected to be officially named their parties’ nominees, are slated for later this summer.

In Nebraska, all three representatives are up for reelection, as well as two senators — the first time since 1954 that both of Nebraska’s U.S. Senate seats are concurrently up for reelection. Nebraska is also the only state that will have both Senate seats on the 2024 ballot.

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Eyes are on the 2nd Congressional District, the state’s sole swing district, where Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) faces a competitive contest and the presidency could hinge on a few votes.

Another challenge for state Republicans is that for the first time, all five members of the Nebraska delegation are looking to remain on Capitol Hill without the endorsement from the state party.

Two Senate seats on the 2024 ballot

There will be two Senate primary contests held on Tuesday: a special election for Sen. Pete Ricketts’s (R-NE) seat, and the regularly scheduled contest for Sen. Deb Fischer’s (D-NE) seat.

Ricketts succeeded former Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who left Congress earlier that month to become the next president of the University of Florida, on Jan. 12, 2023, with the appointment of Gov. Jim Pillen (R-NE). The special election will decide who finishes out Sasse’s term, which ends in 2026.

Ricketts, the former governor of Nebraska, is running in the special election to keep Sasse’s seat until 2026 — the year he also plans on running for a full term. He is facing John Glen Weaver and Mac Stevens in the primary.

Weaver, who was a Republican candidate for Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District in 2022, received endorsements from the Nebraska Republican Party and a dozen county GOPs. Ricketts nabbed endorsements from key groups such as Americans for Prosperity Action, the National Rifle Association’s Victory Fund, and the Nebraska Farm Bureau, as well as support from several state Republican lawmakers. According to campaign finance records, Ricketts drastically outspent and outraised Weaver.

On the Democratic side, Preston Love Jr. from North Omaha is the only registered Democrat in the race. In a January speech announcing his campaign, he compared himself to David running against Goliath. He will face the winner of Ricketts, Weaver, and Stevens in November.

Though the Senate seats have been held by Republicans since 2013, Nebraska Democratic Party Executive Director Precious McKesson told Nebraska Public Media that the division in the state GOP could help Democrats.

“It is a very big opportunity for us,” she told the outlet. “But I mean, right now, our focus is to make sure that Nebraskans know what we stand for, what we stand to do when we’re in office, and we just keep moving. We can’t worry about what they got going on. We just keep pushing and keep fighting the good fight.”

In the Republican primary for a full six-year term, Fischer will face off against Arron Kowalski, a rancher from Grand Island. Though Fischer did not receive an endorsement from the state GOP, she nabbed endorsements from Pillen and 32 state senators, and she has over $2.6 million cash on hand as of April.

No Democrat is in the race as of now to face off against the winner of Fischer and Kowalski. However, labor union leader Dan Osborn will appear on the November ballot as an independent candidate after receiving the required number of signatures, per Nebraska Public Media. McKesson told the outlet that Nebraska Democrats are planning to endorse Osborn after the primary elections.

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Bacon looks to defend swing seat

Bacon is projected to win the GOP primary on Tuesday against businessman Dan Frei. In a swing district consisting of Omaha that has been held by Bacon since 2016, appealing to both red and blue voters is key.

This is Frei’s second attempt at a congressional seat after he ran an unsuccessful campaign against then-Rep. Lee Terry Jr. in 2014. Terry went on to lose the general election to former Rep. Brad Ashford, marking the first time since 1992 that a Democrat won the 2nd Congressional District. Bacon unseated Ashford in 2016 and has held the seat ever since.

Frei nabbed an endorsement from the state GOP, but Bacon has received endorsements from Pillen and several state Republican leaders. Though there have been no public polls, per the Omaha World-Herald, Bacon said his campaign has conducted internal polls showing him leading by 50 points.

With Bacon’s likely primary win, he will face off against Democratic state Sen. Tony Vargas, who is running unopposed in Tuesday’s primary. Bacon and Vargas have battled each other before — Vargas lost to the congressman in 2022 by fewer than 6,000 votes.

A February internal Vargas poll shared with the Nebraska Examiner found that Vargas led Bacon, 46% to 43%, among 2nd District voters — aligning with ratings from Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball that Bacon’s race is set to be one of the most competitive in 2024.

Contested primaries will also be held in Nebraska’s other two districts, which are solid red and likely to remain in Republican hands. In the 1st Congressional District, Rep. Mike Flood (R-NE) is facing off against Michael Connolly, but neither of them secured an endorsement from the state GOP. The winner between Connolly and Flood will face off against Carol Blood, a Democrat running unopposed on Tuesday.

In the 3rd Congressional District, two Republicans and two Democrats are running to unseat nine-term incumbent Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE), who was elected to Congress in 2006 after serving in the state legislature. He is used to Republican primary challenges in one of the nation’s most conservative districts — 63% Republican and 18% Democratic.

Smith has attracted at least one primary opponent in every election since 2018, but he has never gotten less than 65% of the vote, per the Nebraska Examiner. He is likely to face off against the winner of Democrats Daniel Ebers and David Else. Smith defeated Else in the 2022 general election, 78.3% to 15.8%.

Presidential election could hinge on 2nd District

Bacon’s seat could serve as a lynchpin for the 2024 presidential race. Nebraska is one of two states, the other being Maine, that awards electoral delegates proportionally. In 2020, Biden received the most votes in Bacon’s 2nd District and won one of Nebraska’s five electoral votes — despite the state typically voting Republican in presidential elections.

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Allies of Trump, including Pillen and state legislators, pushed for a switch to a “winner-take-all” system, but the state legislature overwhelmingly declined to change the rules. Under the current system, two electoral votes are awarded to the statewide winner and the vote winner in each of the state’s three congressional districts is awarded one vote.

The 2nd District’s delegates could be the votes that help push Biden over the finish line in the event of a tie between him and Trump. Numerous polls show that the 2024 presidential election will likely come down to a handful of votes, making Trump allies worried that even a Republican stronghold such as Nebraska could produce a Democratic candidate in the end.

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