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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A special election in Nebraska was supposed to be an easy win for House Republicans. It instead was the tightest race in decades in the GOP-dominated district, boosting confidence among Democrats hoping to energize voters by tapping into public outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court's abortion ruling.
Republicans still won the open seat as expected, but the margin surprised even some Democrats who have grown accustomed to lopsided, morale-crushing defeats.
Republican Mike Flood beat Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks with 53.2% of the vote in Tuesday's special election, according to unofficial results. Pansing Brooks received 46.8%, with less than 7,200 total votes separating the candidates. The win was the narrowest in decades in the Republican-heavy, mostly rural 1st Congressional District, which hasn't elected a Democrat to the House since 1964.
“It was a thrilling result,” said Danielle Conrad, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Lincoln. “Patty far outpaced the conventional wisdom. I don't think anybody expected her to perform this well in such a tough district."
Flood and Pansing Brooks were competing to replace disgraced former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican who routinely claimed at least 60% of the vote in his district before he was convicted in March on charges that he lied to FBI agents about an illegal campaign donation.
Fortenberry resigned shortly after a jury found him guilty and was sentenced to probation Tuesday in a federal court in Los Angeles. His departure left an open seat that needed to be filled before the November general election.
In the final days of the campaign, Pansing Brooks emphasized her support for abortion rights in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that had prevented states from banning the procedure.
Blasting the court's move as an assault on privacy, she appeared at crowded abortion-rights rallies and on street corners, where her supporters raised signs that said, “Honk for choice, vote for Patty.”
In a recent campaign speech, she proclaimed that the election marked “the first day in the entire country where we can fight back at the ballot box.”
Flood, meanwhile, spent the final days of his campaign promising to fight inflation and casting the race as crucial for Republicans to win back a House majority and block the Biden administration's policy agenda.
Flood and Pansing Brooks will face each other again in November to determine who will serve a full term starting in January 2023. Pansing Brooks’ campaign manager, Chris Triebsch, said the ruling “created a lot of momentum” that their team hopes to carry into the next contest.
“We're ecstatic to be where we're at,” Triebsch said. “Obviously this gives us a really good roadmap into November, to see the areas where we can invest and improve on.”
Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic political strategist who has worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said the Nebraska race was a sign of energy among Democrats following the Supreme Court ruling last week.
Pansing Brooks was “a really strong candidate and she really capitalized on the moment,” Elrod said, and made clear that she would fight for abortion rights in Congress.
Elrod said national Democratic groups should see the race as a signal of momentum and consider investing in places where they might not normally think prospects are favorable.
“I think they’re going to look at this as a bellwether, in a very positive way,” she said.
On Tuesday night, Flood steamrolled Pansing Brooks in every rural county in the district.
But in Lancaster County, which includes progressive-leaning Lincoln, Pansing Brooks beat him by a healthy margin. Lancaster County provided nearly 75% of her total votes. The race was also tight in a portion of the district that includes suburban Omaha, which Flood narrowly won.
The 1st Congressional District became slightly less Republican in 2021 after state lawmakers redrew Nebraska's congressional districts, but the GOP still holds a towering advantage. The district has nearly 68,000 more Republicans than Democrats, according to the Nebraska secretary of state’s office. And Democratic strength in Lincoln is more than offset by dozens of smaller, conservative towns that generally oppose abortion.
The results surprised national Democrats as well. Tim Persico, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Nebraska race was “not on our list” of priorities because it wasn't seen as competitive. He said for Pansing Brooks to narrowly lose in a district that is still solidly Republican — and fare better there than Biden did in 2020 — is “extremely unusual.”
“I think she deserves a lot of credit,” Persico said. “And I also just think that it’s a data point that maybe the environment is shifting.”
Persico said the DCCC will evaluate whether to get involved in the general election, but the Nebraska results weren't enough to prompt an overhaul of their current strategy.
“I think that we’re pretty focused on the map that we have right now,” he said. “But when people are actually voting, especially post-Roe, this is a pretty interesting data point."
Flood, who lives 120 miles north of Lincoln in Republican-leaning Norfolk, said he was grateful to have won in the district. A fervent opponent of abortion, he said he would be a conservative advocate for the district but acknowledged that he needs to shore up his support around Lincoln and suburban Omaha.
“I recognize that I have work to do,” he said.
Price reported from New York.
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