By Jim Ellis
May 11, 2016 — Though the presidential nomination contests are virtually over, voters are still streaming to the polls for nine Republican and 13 Democratic intra-party elections. Now that we are progressing further into the election cycle more states include down ballot races along with the presidential contest. That was the case in Nebraska and West Virginia yesterday. Though Hillary Clinton remains the presumed Democratic nominee, she lost yet another primary. It was expected she would fall in West Virginia after coming out earlier for shutting down the coal industry. True to form, Bernie Sanders beat her 51-36 percent. She did manage to place first in the Nebraska primary, a beauty contest for Democrats since the delegates were apportioned weeks ago.
It was interesting to see how presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump fared in Nebraska, capturing 60 percent of the vote. Original projections slated this state for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and with it 36 winner-take-all Cornhusker delegates. Trump now wins, but the percentage is worth noting. The Midwest and Rocky Mountain region has been Cruz’s strongest territory, in addition to his home state of Texas, which is one reason Trump’s Indiana victory last week became so significant. The changing regional political winds in a state originally thought certain to go to Cruz helped end the race.
With many Republican establishment leaders publicly eschewing Trump’s candidacy, it doesn’t appear these actions hurt the future nominee and may actually have helped reinforce his independent, anti-establishment persona.
There is no Senate election in Nebraska – senators Deb Fischer (R) and Ben Sasse (R) don’t again face the voters until 2018 and 2020, respectively – and the statewide offices are not in-cycle. Therefore, the congressional primaries produced the only major nominees.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Lincoln) seeks a seventh term and will have little trouble winning. He was unopposed in yesterday’s primary and faces physician Daniel Wik (D) in the general election. Wik has raised no reportable money so far.
Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Gering/Western Nebraska) draws neither a Republican primary challenger nor a Democratic opponent. Rep. Smith’s lone challenger in November will be Independent Lisa Heineman, and the result is obvious. Smith was first elected to the House in 2006.
The real congressional action came in the Omaha-anchored 2nd District, as Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford sought a second term after unseating veteran Rep. Lee Terry (R) in 2014. On the Republican side, retired Air Force General Don Bacon, armed with an endorsement from Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) and several outside organizations, was favored over former state senator and Douglas County Commissioner Chip Maxwell.
An interesting aside comes forth in this race as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, obviously believing Maxwell was the easier opponent for Ashford to beat, was actively encouraging Republicans to choose the ex-state legislator over Gen. Bacon. The DCCC spent over $400,000 on ads telling Republican voters that Maxwell was a Tea Party sympathizer “who opposes Obamacare” and “would never vote to raise the federal debt ceiling”, while Bacon is the “Republican establishment candidate.” This was a brazen move that I thought would very likely backfire, and it did. Gen. Bacon took 67 percent of the vote.
The Mountain State, in the heart of coal country, has always projected to be in Trump’s pocket so there was little suspense about what would happen here. Trump broke 75 percent of the vote.
The open Democratic governor’s primary, however, is the top of mind campaign. Here, businessman Jim Justice, labeled the “wealthiest man in West Virginia” attempted to win the party nomination. Late polling showed him with a slight lead over former US Attorney Booth Goodwin, and state Senate Minority Leader and former gubernatorial candidate Jeff Kessler. The ballot test results, however, showed all three candidates in close proximity to each other. Justice became the official Democratic nominee for governor, as he garnered 50 percent of the party vote versus 26 percent for Goodwin and 24 percent for Kessler. Justice gets state Senate President Bill Cole in November, who is unopposed for the Republican nomination. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) is ineligible to seek a third term.
As in Nebraska, neither incumbent senators — Joe Manchin (D) nor Shelley Moore Capito (R) — were on the ballot in 2016. In the three House races, only one incumbent, freshman Rep. Alex Mooney (R-Charles Town) faced a primary challenger, and he decisively outdistanced him, 72-28 percent, to win re-nomination.
The Democratic side, however, featured five candidates, none of whom have raised much in the way of campaign funding. No one has even raised $200,000 for their primary bid, with Army veteran Cory Simpson and attorney Harvey Peyton coming in around the $150,000 mark, and former state Delegate Mark Hunt only closing in on $100,000. The 2nd District could be competitive in the general election, but with West Virginia swinging toward Republicans in national campaigns it appears 2016 is an unlikely year to see a Mountain State GOP House member unseated.