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Nebraska primary election begins changing of guard

By: The Associated Press
May 12, 2014 Updated: May 12, 2014 at 1:33 pm

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska primary voters will begin a major changing of the guard Tuesday when they select nominees for governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and state auditor.

The election will thin the field in hotly contested Republican races. It also will set the stage for replacing Gov. Dave Heineman, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Auditor Mike Foley — all GOP incumbents who are leaving office in January.

The state is seeing unusually competitive primary races this year, and whoever wins the statewide Republican contests will emerge as heavy favorites to win in the Nov. 4 general election.

And while the Legislature is officially nonpartisan, one-third of the 49 seats have come open because of term limits. Of the incumbents seeking re-election, five Republicans and one Democrat will face at least one primary challenger.

"There's a lot at stake here," said Bud Synhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party. "The Senate seat is obviously very important, but all of these seats at the state level are extremely important too. They're going to have a bigger impact on our day-to-day lives here in the state."

Nebraska has seen a fairly stable cast of statewide elected officials over the last decade. Heineman has served as governor since 2005, Bruning stepped into the attorney general job in 2003, and Foley became auditor in 2007. Johanns is retiring after one term in the U.S. Senate but previously served as U.S. agriculture secretary and governor of Nebraska.

The last time that both the governor and U.S. Senate seats were open was in 1978, when Republican Charles Thone was elected governor and Democrat Jim Exon moved from the governorship to the U.S. Senate.

The Nebraska secretary of state's office predicted last week that 30 percent of registered voters will cast ballots in the primary. Turnout among Republican voters is expected to be higher because of the contested races, Secretary of State John Gale said. More than 54,000 voters have already requested ballots and about half of them have voted early.

Gale likened the election to 2006, when Gov. Dave Heineman ran for his first full term in office against former U.S. Rep. and Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne. Nebraska saw a decade-high 35 percent turnout among registered primary voters.

With no incumbents, Democrats hope to make the steep uphill climb to reclaim the seats. Former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook is running unopposed in the primary for governor, while Omaha attorney Dave Domina will face the winner of the GOP Senate race. The Nebraska attorney general's race has drawn two Democratic hopefuls, Al Eurek of Lincoln and Janet Stewart of Fremont.

Yet even with the seats open, Democrats likely will struggle to win in statewide races. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in Nebraska by almost 200,000, and GOP candidates have increasingly dominated in recent years.

Frustration with President Barack Obama at the national level could make it more difficult for state-level Democrats, said Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor.

"The atmosphere nationwide has changed, and it's also changed in Nebraska," Landow said.

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