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Nebraska’s midterm election turnout was the highest in decades

November 9, 2018

Nebraska voters turned out at their highest level for a midterm election since the Republican “Contract with America” wave of 1994.

But voter enthusiasm couldn’t match that historic turnover of the U.S. House. Nor could Nebraska’s 56 percent turnout, as of Wednesday’s vote tally, reach the level of a presidential election.

The Iowa Secretary of State’s office told the Associated Press that nearly 61 percent of Iowa’s more than 2 million registered voters participated in this year’s elections, including the primary election. That marked the highest percentage for a midterm election year since 1994, when turnout topped 62 percent.

Nationally, Democratic enthusiasm in the 2018 election turned control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democrats. The party is in line, so far, to gain about 28 seats in the House — more than enough to control the chamber.

“That’s a nice pickup, but historically speaking it’s not huge,” said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It certainly wasn’t the Blue Wave that Democrats were hoping for.”

In 1994, after two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Republicans led by Newt Gingrich wrested House control from Democrats with a promise of smaller government and tax cuts. In Omaha, that election saw conservative evangelical Jon Christensen defeat incumbent Democrat Peter Hoagland as Republicans nationally gained more than 54 House seats and nine Senate seats.

For that midterm in Nebraska, nearly 65 percent of voters went to the polls.

Since then, the 2018 turnout rate for Nebraska is highest of the six midterms held. It was high enough to create long lines and lengthy waits at some polling places.

Locally, it wasn’t just a Democratic push at the polls — Republican Red showed its strength.

Sarpy County — a Republican stronghold with its mostly white, suburban base — reached nearly 60 percent turnout, according to initial figures from the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office.

More Democratic Douglas County, with its more racially and ethnically diverse makeup, turned out at 54 percent. That puts Douglas County’s turnout percentage at 20th lowest of Nebraska’s 93 counties.

That difference helps explain the results in the 2nd District congressional race, in which incumbent Republican Don Bacon defeated Democrat Kara Eastman and her progressive message pitching health care expansion through Medicare-for-all.

The district covers Douglas and part of Sarpy County, and the fact that Eastman wasn’t able to roll up more of an advantage in Douglas County spelled defeat for her, Hibbing said.

It also raises a question, Hibbing said, about whether a more moderate Democratic candidate, Brad Ashford — whom Eastman defeated in the primary — could have won the seat. “That’s the kind of seat the Democrats were fairly successful in flipping around the country,” Hibbing said.

Bacon emerged Tuesday with a 3-percentage-point win.

Hibbing and Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, agreed that the Nebraska results also show continued support here for President Donald Trump.

Landow said Democrats who attacked Trump in their campaigns didn’t get much traction with the strategy.

The formula for victory in Nebraska, Landow said, remains the same: “There’s a lot of Republicans, and they support Republicans.”

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