In west Omaha legislative race, Thibodeau and Cavanaugh have similar backgrounds, opposite politics

October 5, 2018

LINCOLN — The candidates battling over west-central Omaha’s District 6 legislative seat look very similar on the surface.

Both are professional women with varied career backgrounds. Both are married, have three children and are Catholic. Both are Omaha natives related to well-known politicians.

But Machaela Cavanaugh and State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau disagree on almost every political issue confronting Nebraska, including Medicaid expansion, tax cuts, the death penalty and abortion.

“There’s some real philosophical differences,” Cavanaugh said.

Thibodeau’s political positions largely match those of Gov. Pete Ricketts, who appointed her to the seat in 2017 and had donated $15,000 to her campaign as of June.

She looks to have the advantage in the race. She has campaign experience from helping her sister, Aimee Melton, get elected to the Omaha City Council. She is a Republican in a district in which the GOP claims the largest share of registered voters, at nearly 41 percent. And she won the three-way primary with 51 percent of the vote on May 15.

“I feel cautiously optimistic,” she said. “The primary definitely gave us some nice momentum.”

But Cavanaugh, a registered Democrat, has a fighting chance.

She has heavyweight financial backing of her own, with her largest donations coming from the Nebraska State Education Association, Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys and Firefighters for Better Government. She has political experience as the daughter of former U.S. Rep. John Cavanaugh, and as a staff assistant for former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson.

She said that her views resonate with constituents in the district, who she argues are tired of partisanship in the Legislature. When combined, Democrats, at 36 percent, and nonpartisan voters, at 24 percent, outnumber Republicans in the district.

The two are competing to represent a district whose residents tend to be older, more educated and better off financially than the Nebraska average.

Cavanaugh is a strong supporter of Initiative 427, the ballot measure that would expand Medicaid to cover more low-income Nebraskans. She said she expects the measure to pass and believes it is important to have senators willing to implement the proposal.

She argues that, by refusing to expand Medicaid earlier, the state has turned away billions in federal dollars while leaving 90,000 residents without affordable insurance coverage. Those federal dollars include taxes paid by Nebraskans.

“We’re paying into the system and not getting anything out of it,” she said. “It’s time to stop coming up with excuses and do it.”

Thibodeau said she plans to vote against the ballot measure, citing concerns about the cost of adding more people to the state Medicaid program. Estimates peg the state’s share of costs at about $64 million, which would be partially offset by savings in other programs.

“I do fear it could end up affecting other areas that need funding,” she said.

However, she said she understands the plight of Nebraskans without access to affordable health insurance. She said she would work to create new insurance options, under which employers offering similar services or members of associations could band together to get cheaper insurance rates.

Thibodeau names tax relief as a key issue, especially property tax relief. But she believes Nebraska needs to look at all taxes when developing a property tax plan.

She said income tax relief is needed to help small business owners and attract businesses of all sizes to settle and grow in the state. It also is needed to recruit and keep young people in the state. Taxes on Social Security also are a concern for retired people.

“We can’t just concentrate on one tax,” she said. “We have to look at the big picture.”

Cavanaugh puts her focus on property tax relief, which she believes can be addressed only by increasing state support for K-12 schools. To boost funding for public schools, she said lawmakers need to examine the budget and make education a priority.

They also may need to look for other sources of revenue, she said, and they must stop giving corporate tax cuts and incentives that come at the expense of investment in Nebraskans.

“Where are our priorities?” she asked. “Are our priorities the children or are they big business?”

The two take opposing positions on the high profile issues of abortion and the death penalty.

Thibodeau voted for a budget measure that took Title X family planning money away from Planned Parenthood and said she would support a ban on abortions after six weeks. Cavanaugh disagrees with the Title X limits and would oppose any additional limitation on abortion in Nebraska.

Thibodeau supports the death penalty for the most heinous crimes and to protect corrections workers. Cavanaugh opposes it, calling it immoral, ineffective and costly to the state.

If elected, Cavanaugh said she would work on increasing the state’s investment in behavioral health services and would pursue paid family leave.

If given four more years, Thibodeau said she is committed to protecting K-12 schools and higher education from budget cuts. She also has a concern about the state’s prison system, including decisions about paroling inmates and the shortage of employees.

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