Mayoral candidate Heath Mello took a gamble when he brought U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to Omaha to campaign with him.
But not only did that gamble not pay off, some political observers say it might have blunted Mello’s momentum against Mayor Jean Stothert.
Paul Landow, a political scientist and a former Democratic mayoral staffer, called it a “colossal mistake” to bring in Sanders.
“Why do you bring an ultraliberal into a moderate city to campaign for a moderate candidate for mayor?” Landow said. “Bernie Sanders is not going to do anything to expand your base.”
The mayor’s race is officially nonpartisan. But the election became more partisan when the former Democratic presidential candidate appeared with Mello.
His visit came on the heels of a primary election that was a surprise even to Mello’s campaign, with him finishing only 3 percentage points behind the mayor. On Tuesday, Stothert won by close to 7 points.
The Sanders event brought some national attention to the race, but not all of it was positive. Sanders was criticized by some national Democrats for endorsing Mello, who opposes abortion.
The following week, Stothert brought Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who receives praise from conservatives and criticism from unions. Walker said he wanted to inject some “Midwest values” back into the race.
Stothert and her staffers said her campaign started getting more positive responses after Sanders’ appearance.
“It was about that time that we had a good feeling,” said Bill Protexter, the mayor’s campaign consultant.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb, who supported Sanders in last year’s Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton, pushed back against criticism of involving Sanders in the Mello campaign, saying no one factor decides an election.
“We lost this race for several reasons, one of which is it’s always difficult to beat an incumbent that doesn’t have a scandal on top of them,” she said. “It’s also very difficult to beat somebody that is out-raising you, and it’s difficult when your base doesn’t feel motivated.”
Stothert, a Republican, benefited from high turnout in more conservative west Omaha.
On the other hand, Mello barely won South Omaha, which is his home turf. Plus, turnout was lower in the Democratic eastern portion of the city, especially north Omaha.
Other takeaways from Tuesday’s results:
» It appears that overall turnout will be about 35 percent by the time provisional ballots and the final mail-in ballots received on Election Day are counted. That would be slightly ahead of the turnout from the 2013 mayoral election, which was just under 33 percent.
» Exact comparisons among City Council districts are difficult because of changes in the boundaries since 2013, the uncounted ballots and other factors. However, it appears that the 32 percent turnout in the city’s eastern districts this year was only marginally above the roughly 30 percent turnout from 2013. The 37 percent turnout in the three western districts was roughly the same as in 2013.
» It appears that Republicans who voted for Taylor Royal during the April primary largely came back into the mayor’s fold in the general. While Stothert picked up 54 percent of the vote in the western districts during the primary, that figure increased to 64 percent Tuesday. Royal had garnered 12 percent during the primary in those districts. In the eastern districts, Stothert’s support jumped between the primary and general from 34 percent to more than 41 percent. Royal received 10 percent of the primary vote in those districts.
» Mello barely won District 4, made up of many of the South Omaha neighborhoods that he represented while a member of the Legislature. His advantage over Stothert there was 139 votes. Mello also appears to have lost the South Omaha voting precinct where he lives by three votes, though many provisional ballots remain to be counted.
» However, Mello did fare much better in South Omaha than Mayor Jim Suttle did in 2013, when he was defeated by Stothert. In 2013, Stothert carried District 4 by more than 700 votes. The recent results suggest that working-class South Omaha is no longer the Democratic stronghold it historically has been.
Mello did not return a phone message Wednesday.
On election night, his campaign consultant, Ian Russell, declined to call the Sanders appearance a mistake, but he said the debate surrounding Sanders’ visit struck a dissonant tone for Omaha voters at a time when Mello wanted to focus on such issues as potholes and the proposed streetcar project.
John Cavanaugh, a former Democratic congressman and longtime party activist, said he doesn’t think any national factors played in the final outcome. He said Democrats just weren’t able to make any negative messages stick to Stothert.
“That made (Mello’s) ‘fresh new alternative’ less of an alternative,” he said. “There was never enough reason established to vote against Jean for him to carry the day.”
Plus, Stothert’s campaign considered Mello a “formidable opponent.” Protexter said when the campaign was considering who might run against Stothert, Mello’s name topped the list of good candidates.
Her side didn’t take a win for granted, and she campaigned aggressively.
“She worked hard,” Protexter said.
Omaha has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and the city went for Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the presidential election. The Nebraska Democratic Party had attempted to capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment, sending out fliers urging voters to send Trump a message by supporting Mello.
Kleeb said Stothert’s victory shows that the state’s Democratic Party needs to work to regain the trust of voters. Democrats can’t rely on anti-Trump backlash to get themselves elected, she said.
“We have a long road to pave to rebuild our party, and we have to do that at the grass-roots level,” Kleeb said. “Trump alone is not going to pave this path for us.”