Both the new and old versions of Nebraska’s 1st district are reliably-Republican seats on paper, which is why Tuesday’s surprisingly-competitive special election barely received attention over the last few months. There is certainly no reason to blame the election world for missing this race, because no one’s fundamentals suggested it would be of interest. But the results still beg the three-fold question: how did Democrats over-perform electorally-speaking, why did they do so, and does it have any implications for a potential environmental shift ahead of November?
Before diving into granular analysis, it would behoove one to look at why this special election occurred in the first place. It all started back in March of this year, when veteran Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry resigned after being indicted by the FBI on campaign finance-related charges. The incumbent’s actions forced Governor Pete Ricketts to schedule a special election within 90 days of the vacancy, which he did pursuant to state law. Democratic and Republican executive committees proceeded to choose the nominees for the June 28th race: state Senators (R) Mike Flood and (D) Patty Brooks.
All seemed to moving according to plan, until the Nebraska SoS dropped a bomb on the conventions governing special elections in redistricting years. Historically, these types of races are held under outgoing lines. That means that the 1st district’s Trump +15 (2013-2023) boundaries should have been used. But the SoS made clear that the newly-drawn Trump +11 borders had to be employed because Nebraska law mandates that redistricting proposals take immediate effect after passage by the unicameral legislature.
That might seem innocent enough, until one considers that it is a blatantly unconstitutional move. Because the election to fill the old district was illegally-held under the new lines, the representation of Fortenberry’s former constituents will be unevenly-distributed. In layman’s terms, some voters will have no representative until January 3rd of next year, and others will have two. There are certainly grounds to have the whole special election declared null and void, forcing a redo, but it seems unlikely that this will occur.
Special Election Oddities – High Variability
It’s almost time to analyze the results in detail, but there’s still one very important factor to keep in mind before doing so: special election variability. This term describes the relative unpredictability of off-date House contests, even those occurring in cycles with a very clear Republican or Democratic directionality. So-called variance usually refers to abnormal deviations from a given district’s Presidential lean in its results. In other words, it’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from special elections if the result is out of step with a specific seat’s voting pattern due to unique conditions.
There are countless examples of these oddities in the recent historical record. In 2004, Democrats narrowly won a special election in SD-AL that they could have lost if it had occurred concurrently with that year’s Presidential race. Five years later during the 2009-2010 cycle, Republicans lost two winnable specials in New York and one in Pennsylvania despite netting 63 seats in the fall midterm.
But special elections have also been indicative of greater trends. Leading into the 2008 and 2018 cycles, for instance, Republicans lost or underperformed in numerous winnable races before getting clobbered in the fall House elections. That’s not at all to say 2022 will not be a Republican wave simply because Democrats outran expectations in one election. After all, the GOP flipped TX-34 following a roughly 9 point shift just two weeks ago. Put another way, there would have to be a consistent leftward shift in generic ballot polling for Split Ticket to waver from predicting a significant GOP House victory in the fall.
To conclude this section, it’s crucial to remember that special elections should never be used as the end-all-be-all of an analysis. They certainly provide insight into electoral moods at specific points in time among specific electorates, but they simply involve too many moving parts, as we will soon discover, to be singularly indicative of any national trend.
*Results are up to date as of this writing*
With that introductory material out of the way, Tuesday’s NE-01 results can be discussed in full. In that election, Republican Mike Flood beat Democrat Patty Brooks by a mere 53-47% margin. While that 6 point spread is technically not a close margin, it is surprising when one considers that Trump won this version of the 1st by 11 points in 2020 despite losing amid a Democratic national environment. Given the district’s lean, President Biden’s record-low approvals, and the Republican advantage on the generic ballot, most analysts expected Flood to meet or *exceed* the ex-President’s margin.
Split Ticket incorrectly rated this contest Safe Republican, but our reasoning was perfectly sound given the district fundamentals and the ominous political conditions that Democrats have been fighting against for months. Even with all of this new knowledge in mind, though, we see no reason to change the Safe Republican rating associated with the November rematch in this same district. Why? There are multiple factors, but the most prevalent is turnout.
Turnout Differential Misconceptions
Differing rates of voter turnout are the primary driver of special election variability. All other hypothetical factors excepted, Democrats overperformed Biden’s floor in this district on Tuesday because they posted excellent election day turnout numbers in Lancaster County (Lincoln).
As the chart below demonstrates, the turnout differential told the story of the night. Lancaster, for example, accounted for only 49% of the 2020 votes for President in NE-01 compared to 62% of the 2022 votes in the NE-01 special election. That 12 point shift is an indicator of strong, temporary enthusiasm among Lincoln Democrats – likely a result of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe and Casey with its Dobbs vs. Jackson decision.
Proportional turnout was notably down 10 points in Sarpy, a suburban section of the district that Leans Republican. In 2020, this portion of the 1st cast 22% of its votes. That number fell to just 13% in Tuesday’s contest. Ultimately, the collapse in Sarpy turnout was just as detrimental to Republican margins as the boost in the more-populated Lancaster. Rural participation, which was either proportionally-similar or slightly-below its 2020 levels, also damaged Flood’s performance.
But turnout proportions were not the only mathematical metric that directly contributed to Tuesday’s results. Just as participation rates increased in Lancaster, there was a simultaneous leftward marginal shift from D+8 to D+13. Looking at those two complementary factors as one best explains why the Democrats came within six points of flipping a seat that they had no business competing for this year.
Although Brooks actually improved off of Biden’s margins in some of the more well-populated rural counties like Dodge, five of them still moved rightward. Had there been a similar leftward shift across the district as a whole, it probably would have been a bit closer.
In other words, the best explanation here is still turnout. Lancaster and Sarpy moved left and cast more votes relative to the district total than they would have in 2020. At the same time, rural turnout appeared stagnant enough to fuel a few pro-Republican shifts.
Other Driving Factors
The biggest factor affecting turnout other than the fact that special elections usually occur off-date (separate from the general election) was most likely the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Abortion is a seminal issue around the country, and is particularly capable of generating enthusiasm among Democratic-oriented voters in urban areas. The fact that this race happened just 3 days after a decision that overturned 50 years of precedent on a very controversial issue explains the temporary Democratic momentum in this district that resulted from an elevated Lincoln election day vote.
Another possibility also stands out: scandal. Perhaps Jeff Fortenberry’s financial misdeeds simply smeared the GOP brand in the seat enough to discourage Republicans from coming out to vote at levels proportional with enthusiastic Democrats. New York’s 27th district had a similar special in 2020, where off-cycle variance allowed Nate McMurray to come within 5 points of flipping a double-digit Trump seat that had been represented by an incumbent indicted for insider trading. McMurray had almost won the seat in 2018 and ran well in the 2020 special, but lost by 20 points in November with full Republican Presidential turnout affecting the topline.
Going Forward: Bigger Implications
Split Ticket is neither counting nor discounting the impact of this special election on our perception of the November political environment. Based on the generic ballot polling available to us now, Biden’s approvals, and the historical midterm record, this election cycle still seems like the Republicans’ to lose. Dobbs probably is having a short-term impact, but the question should really be: will its ripples still be at the top of the voters’ minds 4 months from now?
The answer to that question will not be known this early. By August, there will be a month’s worth of new national polling to analyze that should provide insight into generic ballot changes ahead of November. It will also be worthwhile to see if Democrats similarly outrun expectations in the upcoming House specials in New York, Alaska, and Minnesota. For now, though, the anomaly in NE-01 should be relegated to the political history books as a fascinating example of surprise variation from the norm.