LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman might face longer odds next year with his aggressive agenda to reduce state taxes and repeal a controversial law that provides prenatal services for unborn babies of illegal immigrants.
That's because Tuesday's election delivered the Republican governor with three fewer GOP senators in the State Legislature and brought back the recognized master of blocking bills, veteran lawmaker Ernie Chambers.
Democrats captured seats held by three Republicans, including Creighton University professor Sue Crawford's victory in Bellevue and former Millard West Principal Rick Kolowski's win in west Omaha.
The GOP entered the election with a 33-15 edge in the officially nonpartisan body. That advantage will now stand at 30-17, with two independents, including Chambers.
Despite that, Heineman told reporters Wednesday that he remains confident he can win approval of his proposals. He has floated some big ideas recently, including joining states like South Dakota, Texas and Florida in eliminating the state's income tax.
“My agenda is a Nebraska agenda that the people of Nebraska support,” he said. “I look forward to working with them.”
Heineman also welcomed Chambers back to the Legislature. Chambers had served his north Omaha district for 38 years before being removed in 2008 through term limits.
He recaptured his seat by a 2-1 ratio over incumbent Sen. Brenda Council, who pleaded guilty in September after being caught using her campaign funds to gamble at casinos.
Heineman said Chambers forces other lawmakers to do their homework and read proposed legislation. The governor said he has a good working relationship with the controversial and outspoken senator, who calls himself the “defender of the downtrodden.”
“It will be good for the Legislature, and it will be good for the State of Nebraska,” Heineman said of Chambers' return.
The legislative races were, in part, a referendum on the power of Heineman, a former executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party. After he suffered some political setbacks this spring, including an override of his veto of the prenatal bill, he put in an extra push for about eight GOP legislative candidates.
He cut radio endorsement ads and robocalls, provided campaign contributions and appearances, and headed a new political action committee that helped the candidates.
But four Republicans he backed lost their races Tuesday.
Kolowski becomes the first Democrat in 20 years to represent District 31 in the Millard area. He defeated small-business owner Acela Turco.
Kolowski said district voters grew tired of the relentless and negative campaign, which included daily mailings and at least three robocalls over the weekend from Heineman.
Party affiliation, the senator-elect said, was less important to voters than if they knew the candidate and liked the person's ideas.
“They were more concerned about the person,” Kolowski said.
In Bellevue, Crawford defeated Metro Community College instructor Richard Carter. She was endorsed by former State Sen. Paul Hartnett, while Carter was backed by Heineman and current Sen. Abbie Cornett.
“I appreciate the support from so many people throughout the district who want a leader who demonstrates an ability to work with people from both parties to tackle the challenges we face,” Crawford said.
Democrat Kate Bolz, a policy analyst for an advocacy group, narrowly won a seat in south-central Lincoln that has been held by pro-life Republicans for 24 years, most recently by Sen. Tony Fulton.
Bolz defeated Larry Zimmerman, a retired Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation executive and a Republican backed by Heineman and Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts.
Like several winning candidates, Bolz appeared to outwork her opponent. She crisscrossed the district four times asking for votes.
“We knocked on a lot of doors,” she said. “I think people appreciated that someone would come to their doorstep and have a conversation.”
Democrats lost one seat with the victory by Chambers, a registered independent, over Council.
In northwest Lincoln, Republicans were hoping to capture a seat held by Sen. Ken Haar, former state Democratic chairman and a leading voice on environmental issues. But Haar, who reported spending a record $193,000 on his campaign through Oct. 22, held a 99-vote lead over attorney Mike Hilgers, who spent a similar amount, with provisional ballots yet to be counted in Lancaster County.
Haar said that such races “boil down to individuals” and that diversity makes the body stronger.
Heineman did get some wins.
Bill Kintner of Papillion, whose wife is Heineman's policy research director, claimed a narrow victory over incumbent Sen. Paul Lambert of Plattsmouth. Both are Republicans.
Heineman appointed Lambert to the District 2 seat a year ago but switched his endorsement to Kintner after Lambert changed his mind about opposing a bill that allows cities to increase local sales taxes by a half-cent.
The governor also backed the winners in southeast Nebraska's District 1, Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, who defeated Jerry Joy of Peru, and in east-central Nebraska's District 23, where Wahoo Mayor Jerry Johnson defeated retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Vern Barrett.
Lambert and Council were the only two incumbents to lose re-election bids.
Incumbents who turned back opponents were Tanya Cook, Beau McCoy and Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha; Scott Price of Bellevue; Colby Coash of Lincoln; Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins; Charlie Janssen of Fremont; Galen Hadley of Kearney; Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids; and Les Seiler of Hastings.
In Gretna's 49th Legislative District, newly created by redistricting, former state legislative aide John Murante easily defeated Frank Wellenstein. Murante had worked for Omaha Sen. John Nelson, a key Republican in the Legislature.
In Norfolk's 19th District, Jim Scheer, a former Norfolk mayor and a member of the State Board of Education, breezed to a victory over William Goodpasture.
And in central Omaha, Sara Howard, a Democrat, won election to a seat her mother, Sen. Gwen Howard, is leaving because of term limits. Sara Howard defeated Erica Fish, the stepdaughter of another current lawmaker, Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial.
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