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HPPR Government & Politics

Unopposed Races Present Unique Challenges

Nebraska's election next Tuesday will include several unopposed races, including two statewide offices and five seats in the Legislature.


Some candidates will be more relaxed next Tuesday night as election results are announced. That's because it's hard to worry about losing when you don't have an opponent. 

Two statewide races - attorney general and treasurer - as well as five legislative districts, only have one candidate running. That's the same number of races that were unopposed in 2016.

In a year where so much has been written about new enthusiasm, especially among women, for running for office, these five one-candidate races seem out of place. However, they don't represent the whole picture.

“With 850 democrats running, that's a historic number. The largest number we've ever heard before that was about 515. So, I think what you're seeing is the accumulation of about ten years of very grassroots activism in different topics,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. 

“I think what you've seen in 2018 is people looking around and saying, ‘These are the issues that I deeply care about, and I don't see that being reflected in the current candidates, so I'm gonna run,'” Kleeb said.

Potential candidates have a lot to think about. Candidates have to commit a significant amount of time to a race, with no guarantee they'll win. Especially for Democrats in a red state, that can be a tough sell. In 2016, Republicans had a voter registration advantage of more than 200,000 voters.

The same challenge exists for Republicans, though, in certain areas of the state. The Legislature is officially non-partisan, but the candidates running unopposed in legislative districts 28 and 46 are both Democrats.

“So Senator Morfeld and Senator Pansing Brooks both represent those districts. Those are both urban districts here in Lincoln in the core of the city,” said Kenny Zoeller, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.

“We had a couple of individuals identified for both those districts, but in both cases they decided not to run. But you know, we are hopeful that in four years when the seat opens up, we think that they will end up running. Often times it's a combination of people don't want to go up against incumbents, they don't, and they'd rather wait four years from now to run when it's an open seat,” Zoeller said.

The GOP, though, comes out on top this year. Of the unopposed candidates, five of them are Republicans. Zoeller is glad the balance is in their favor, especially for statewide offices.

“You know, we have, we have those two constitutional offices that are already in Republican hands. Those are, those are two statewide elected officials or soon-to-be statewide elected officials who are willing to help our candidates down ballot to get them elected,” Zoeller said.

But what about down-ballot races that are unopposed? What is it like to run a legislative campaign without an opponent?

“It's a little different because you're not looking over your shoulder at a competitor that's trying to be elected to the same position,” Sen. Matt Williams said. He's running for reelection in Legislative District 36.

This year, Williams says his message is informed by his four years in the Legislature. He also says not having an opponent has allowed him to be specific in conversations with constituents.

“For instance, I do not see a path to reducing property taxes if we're unwilling to look at other sources of revenue. I don't believe that we can cut our way to significant property tax relief. As a candidate with an opponent, if you're a Republican, it can be real easy to just say, ‘Well I'm gonna cut taxes,'” Williams said.

On the Democratic side, not having an opponent has allowed Sen. Adam Morfeld, of District 46, to spend time on other things.

“The time that I would have spent on my own campaign, because those are sometimes 20, 30 hour a week type of things leading up until the election, I'm spending on getting Medicaid expansion passed now. And for my legislative district, that's a really important issue. We have one of the highest rates of people that fall within the Medicaid expansion gap in our legislative district, and so there would be a few thousand people that I represent that would be insured and covered that otherwise wouldn't,” Morfeld said.

Morfeld is also able to run his campaign alone now.

“We hired a campaign manager, hired a field director, had volunteer canvasses and door to door work, and in the end, for whatever reason, people decided not to run against me. As is customary in most campaigns, when you win a campaign you give your staff their last paycheck and a little bit of a win bonus for their hard work, and they found jobs at other campaigns,” Morfeld said.

Kevin Smith is chair of the department of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  He says unopposed races aren't great for our democracy.

“It tends to result in a decline in participation, which is bad for the health of civic democracy generally. It also means that there isn't an airing of political and issue differences, which, you know, is also not particularly good for the health of representative democracy,” Smith said.

Come election night, these unopposed races won't take much away from the uncertainty of the evening. There are plenty of opposed races to watch, including 44 legislative seats.

Polls will be open from 8 am to 8 pm Central Time on Tuesday, November 6.

Copyright 2018 Nebraska Public Media