Nebraska State Capitol pictured at sunrise.
The Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., is pictured at sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. (Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS)

Two races for the Nebraska Legislature remain too close to call as of Sunday, Nov. 13, but many of the 23 reelected and newly elected senators are energized and eager to get to work.

Nebraska voters on Tuesday, Nov. 8, got the chance to select 25 state senators to fill out the ranks of the Nebraska Legislature. Thirteen senators retired or were prevented from seeking additional years due to term limits, and 24 seats were not up for election.

All 12 incumbents running for reelection will be returning when the 108th Legislature convenes on Jan. 4, 2023. This includes State Sens. Mike Jacobson of North Platte and Kathleen Kauth of Omaha, who were appointed to their seats earlier this year. Kauth was elected via special election to a two-year term to finish State Sen. Rich Pahls’ term.

State Sen. Robert Dover of Norfolk, who Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed to succeed State Sen. Mike Flood, will also return. Because of the timing of Flood’s resignation for Congress, Dover’s appointment lasts through Flood’s term, or January 2025.

In the new session, 11 of the 13 new senators, Kauth, Dover and potentially whoever is appointed to succeed State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln — who was elected Nebraska Attorney General — will have never served on the legislative floor. 

This new crop of senators also breaks a previous institutional record, increasing to 17 total women to serve in the new year, up from 14 women in the 2019-2020 session and again now because of Kauth’s appointment. 

“Tremendous eagerness”

Senator-elect Jane Raybould of Lincoln, a current Lincoln City Council member who will succeed State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, said the day after the election that she is excited and ready to get going. 

Of her fellow senators-elect, Raybould said there’s similar excitement.

“There’s just tremendous eagerness to really do good for our constituents, do good for our state,” Raybould said. “The folks I’ve spoken with today are excited and are looking forward to continuing their public service.”

Too close to call: Districts 20 and 26

Districts 20 and 26 in Omaha and Lincoln, respectively, have yet to be projected. The former race to succeed State Sen. John McCollister is between Stu Dornan and John Fredrickson, while the latter race to succeed State Sen. Matt Hansen is between Russ Barger and George Dungan.

Fredrickson and Dungan, both Democrats, are leading their Republican opponents. Fredrickson is ahead of Dornan by 69 votes (0.44%), while Dungan is ahead of Barger by 179 votes (1.58%), as of Sunday.

Additional ballots remain to be counted in Douglas and Lancaster counties, though Fredrickson and Dungan said they feel good about their races.

“We are very encouraged with how things are looking, but we need to ensure that every vote is counted and sit tight until that process occurs,” Fredrickson said in a text.

Dungan said he feels very confident in his campaign, with recent ballots being counted seeming to split toward his campaign.

“That being said, you obviously never want to take anything for granted, and it was an incredibly hard-fought race,” Dungan said. “I felt confident last week; I feel confident going into the next week, and I’m just excited to get to work.”

Dungan has yet to be projected as the winner in the race, but the Nebraska Legislature website includes him on its senator-elect list.

Neither Dornan nor Barger could be reached for comment despite multiple attempts.

Partisan influences

The importance of the District 20 and 26 races is on partisan influences in the Legislature, though the institution is officially nonpartisan.

All senators and senators-elect have official party affiliations, Republican or Democrat, though they are elected without the party by their names on the ballot. In the Legislature, senators do not organize by party either. 

If Fredrickson and Dungan hold their leads, the margin between parties remains the same: 32 Republicans, 17 Democrats. It takes 33 votes on controversial legislation to end debate, which is a goal Republicans have sought to achieve and Democrats to prevent.

But even if Republicans do not get 33 seats, State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, a Democrat who won reelection, is cautioning people that this does not mean Democrats alone can prevent abortion restrictions.

“Hold up,” Hunt said on Twitter. “We may have elected 17 Democrats, but don’t have enough to stop an abortion ban because we have anti-abortion Democrats. (And, for the first time, zero moderate Republicans.)”

How senators divide on other issues is yet to be determined, but Hunt is referencing State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, who supported further restrictions on abortion in the spring. Some have speculated State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha could also join legislators to restrict abortion, but his position is unclear as he was absent on the day of the vote.

Multiple senators who were criticized as “Republicans in name only,” or moderates, were also among those term-limited this year.

State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, a Republican who won reelection, said the District 20 and 26 races will tell a lot about what will happen in the next two years, adding there is “kind of reserved optimism right now.”

Hansen was interviewed on Nov. 9 when Dornan led Fredrickson, though the lead flipped when more ballots were counted and reported on Friday, Nov. 11.

Riepe, Conrad returning to legislative seats

Merv Riepe of Ralston, who served in the Legislature from 2015 until 2019, and Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, who served in the Legislature from 2007 until 2015, are also returning.

Conrad served eight years before being term-limited. Riepe was elected to succeed State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha in 2014, but Lathrop, after sitting out one term, came back in 2018 and beat Riepe for another term.

“I have a number of friends that were down there before when I was there, and they’re still in their last two years,” Riepe said. “So it’s kind of a bonding relationship in the Legislature, and I had friends, as the description goes, on both sides of the aisle, if you will.”

Riepe said he missed the engagement and likes policy, and if he could make some small contribution to his district and the rest of the state, he had to try.

Conrad said she is returning because she had been watching “storm clouds” gather in Nebraska politics. Like Riepe, Conrad said if she could use her experiences and expertise to make a broader positive difference, she had to try.

“I’ve been busy thanking supporters and reaching out to new and returning colleagues to strengthen relationships as we discuss leadership races, committee assignments and issues,” Conrad said in a text. “We have a lot of work to do, but I am up to the challenge, and I know my colleagues will all work diligently to serve Nebraskans.”

A message for Nebraskans

Of the senators-elect who could be reached, the Nebraska News Service asked them how they felt about their elections and their impending service to the state. Read what they have to say here or below.

Zach Wendling is a senior journalism and political science double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focused on political, policy and governance reporting. He is the spring 2023 intern for the Nebraska Examiner and has been published in publications across the state as part of the Nebraska News Service. Wendling interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. and worked for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL. He is one of the founding members and inaugural president of UNL's new campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.