The clock ticked down on the 2014 Nebraska Primary Tuesday as voters filtered through polling places to decide the fate of the candidates. The spotlight has focused on gubernatorial and senate campaigns.
Fewer than 30 percent of registered voters in Nebraska were expected to vote. The anticipated turnout is even lower in the metro. Douglas County expected a 23 percent turnout, and Sarpy County expected only one in five voters would come out for this election.
Sarpy County Election Commissioner Wayne Bena told WOWT 6 News he is hopeful his prediction turns out to be wrong. He challenged all Sarpy County voters to show up to the polls or turn in their early voting ballots. As of Tuesday morning, 1,000 of Sarpy County's 4,755 early ballots had not yet been returned. They must be dropped at the Election Office by 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Nebraska Republican voters will choose one of six party candidates for governor Tuesday, including a former financial services executive and a longtime attorney general who have led the race to replace Governor Dave Heineman.
The winner will emerge as a heavy favorite in the November general election. But the path to the nomination has turned rocky in recent weeks, with Attorney General Jon Bruning and former TD Ameritrade executive Pete Ricketts sparring over their experience and accusing each other of running negative campaigns.
Both are seeking the governor's office after previous unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senate - Ricketts in the 2006 general election, and Bruning in the 2012 primary. Ricketts, whose previous Senate run was the most expensive in Nebraska history, has raised less money this time around but still led the field with $3.7 million as of last month.
Bruning joined the race in February shortly after he was treated for colon cancer. He initially said he would seek re-election as attorney general, but has since vaulted to the front with $2.1 million raised.
Republicans said once the nominee is chosen, the party will unite and work to extend its 15-year hold on the governor's office.
"We'll have had a hard-fought primary, but once it's over, it'll be time to focus on winning the general," said Bud Synhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.
Despite minor differences over roads funding, prison reform and prenatal care for people in the United States illegally, the six GOP candidates march together on most issues. In addition to Bruning and Ricketts, the field includes state Senators Beau McCoy of Omaha and Tom Carlson of Holdrege, Omaha tax attorney Bryan Slone and State Auditor Mike Foley of Lincoln.
The GOP winner will face Democrat Chuck Hassebrook, a former University of Nebraska regent who led the Center for Rural Affairs. While the Republican race has drawn the most attention, Hassebrook has spent the last several months building a campaign network, fundraising and presenting himself to voters as a champion of rural Nebraska.
"For a Democrat, an open seat is clearly easier to win than a challenged race against an incumbent," said Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor. "A win is always possible. But it's a long, uphill climb."
The latest turn in the GOP race came last week, when Heineman endorsed Bruning in the primary. Heineman, the state's longest-serving governor and a popular Republican figure, said Bruning has the experience needed for the job. He also said he believed Bruning would focus on economic development and education.
Ricketts said he wasn't surprised by the endorsement, and criticized Bruning as a "status quo candidate and a career bureaucrat."
Ricketts has won endorsements from former Nebraska Governors Charles Thone and Kay Orr, as well as from national political figures embraced by the tea party. The list includes former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
In the heated battle for the GOP Senate nomination, Shane Osborn said the thinks the hard work of his campaign leading up to the election is going to pay off but he said that past few weeks have been tough.
"Well, I think that there was a few weeks back when I was getting hit pretty hard with these D.C. establishment groups that slowed momentum back. But then Nebraskans started to figure out where it was coming from and it was untrue. And now we have had momentum shift back lately, and I think that is going to be the key. It's going to be a close race, but we do have the momentum."
Ben Sasse spent time Tuesday with family and visiting precincts.
Sid Dinsdale’s camp set up in Elkhorn in advance of the vote tallies.
Dinsdale said, "I'm a Nebraska and this is my home. So I want to represent Nebraskans back in Washington, D.C. You know, today's the day Nebraskans can decide who their next U.S. Senator is because until now we've had all these groups from Washington D.C. coming in telling everybody how to vote. Today's the day Nebraskans can vote for a fellow Nebraskan."
Fewer races will appear on this year's primary ballots. The passage of Legislative Bill 56 means all uncontested county races advance straight through to the general election. In Sarpy County alone, the new law removes 27 county races from the ballot.
Anyone registered as nonpartisan can request to vote on a specific party's ticket. When it comes to the Republican side, the procedure remains the same: a nonpartisan voter can vote only on the U.S. Senate and U.S. House races. New for the 2014 primary though, state parties for the Democrats and Libertarians opted to open their entire primary tickets to nonpartisan voters.
Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps describes independent voters as the "fastest growing affiliation." Close to 25 percent of Douglas and Sarpy County voters are now nonpartisan. "I think people want to not particularly go with one party or another and maybe get some of those mailings," Phipps said. "It's been a pretty popular choice for the last 5 years now."
Despite a spike in nonpartisan affiliations, the Republican party holds onto a strong majority. Forty-eight percent of the state's 1.15 million voters are registered Republicans, and it's that ticket getting the most attention so far this election cycle. Five Republicans are fighting to move forward in the U.S. Senate race while six Republicans want their party's nod for the Governor's office.
Polls are open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 13. Tonight's winners move on to the general election November 4.