A sign marks McMahon Hall as a polling place on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Omaha, Nebraska, for the midterm election.

The results of this month’s election aren’t certified yet, but jockeying has already begun for 2020.

Politicians and political leaders are making decisions now that will shape the political landscape then.

It will be a presidential year, so expect more money, more attention and more voters than this year.

Already, potential candidates are eyeing openings and thinking about their political future.

Republicans hold most of the top offices in the state, which means that there are a lot of opportunities for Democrats.

And some Democrats have even announced, or at least made their interest known.

And as politicians consider their next moves, the state’s political leaders are thinking about the makeup of the Legislature, potential ballot initiatives and the specter of 2021 redistricting.

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U.S. Senate and 2nd Congressional District

Sen Ben Sasse is up for re-election. He hasn’t publicly announced whether he plans to run, saying he will make the decision next summer. But although Sasse has been eyed as a possible presidential contender, he has started to form a campaign apparatus in Nebraska.

If he decides not to run, that could lead one or more down-ballot Republicans to run for his spot, creating a chain reaction of other seats opening.

Either way, Democrats will be looking for candidates for Senate and for the state’s three House seats.

There’s already one:

Chris Janicek, who ran in the Democratic Senate primary this year, announced via text message on Nov. 7 that he plans to run to challenge Sasse.

The most competitive House seat is Nebraska’s 2nd District, which encompasses Omaha and western Sarpy County.

Republican Rep. Don Bacon just won a second term over Kara Eastman.

That outcome sparked a debate within the Democratic Party about whether to tailor its message toward turning out liberal voters or swaying moderate Republicans.

And that debate will likely play a role in a primary for the seat.

One person who’s thinking about a run is Ann Ashford, a lawyer who is married to former Rep. Brad Ashford, who lost to Eastman in this year’s primary.

Ann Ashford, who considered running this year but stepped aside for her husband, said she is seriously considering running and plans to make a decision in the winter or early spring.

Ashford is firmly in the “Democrats must reach out to moderates” camp.

“I think we need a representative in Congress who can represent the entirety of the district,” she said. “And I think I could do that.”

Eastman said Friday that she hasn’t made any decisions about her future, including her next job and whether she will run for office again. Her term on the Metropolitan Community College Board of Governors is ending, and she gave up her job as the CEO of the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance to run her congressional campaign.

“I keep coming back to just how honored I was to be able to do something like that and to run the campaign that I wanted to run,” she said. “We also easily destroyed the narrative that you can’t run on common sense progressive ideas and values in a place like Nebraska because the lose margin was so small and the things I was talking about were so highly popular.”

Other Democrats who could run for the office include State Sens. Tony Vargas and Justin Wayne, both former Omaha Public Schools board members whose first terms in the Legislature will be up in 2020.

Vargas did not return phone messages. Wayne said he hasn’t thought about higher office.

“I’ve got a big legislative agenda this year,” he said.

Former State Sen. Heath Mello, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Omaha last year, said to count him out of the 2020 speculation. He said he’s happy with his job in the University of Nebraska system.

“I’m not running,” he said. “I have no desire to run.”

Another potential Democratic candidate for higher office — though not the 2nd District seat — is Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, whom voters chose to term-limit this month.

Beutler, a former state senator who ran for governor in 1986, said that he hasn’t made any decisions and that his focus is on making sure that a good mayor and City Council are chosen in Lincoln’s city elections next year.

Beutler, 74, said, “I’m on the upper end of the age scale,” and, “I’ve got some other offers that may be of interest to me.”


Half of the Legislature is up for re-election, and some senators are term-limited, leaving open seats.

One of the biggest names to leave will be independent State Sen. Ernie Chambers, whose presence or absence in the Legislature makes a huge difference.

Also term-limited are Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk, Sara Howard of Omaha, Kate Bolz of Lincoln, Rick Kolowski of Omaha and Sue Crawford of Bellevue. The Legislature is officially nonpartisan, but that’s four registered Democrats and just one Republican.

Two other Republicans, Dan Watermeier and John Murante, would’ve been term-limited, but they won other offices this month, and their replacements will be appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Kenny Zoeller said the GOP will also put a heavy focus on Sens. Dan Quick of Grand Island and Lynne Walz of Fremont, two rural Democrats who hold Republican-leaning seats.

So Democrats will be fighting to hold onto enough seats to be able to filibuster. And that means that Democratic state senators who are in the middle of their terms might think twice before running for higher office — if they won, Ricketts would appoint their replacement, and he or she would almost certainly be a Republican.

Ballot initiatives

“I think there’s a realistic possibility that you’re going to have something major on the ballot to turn out Republicans and something major on the ballot to turn out Democrats,” Zoeller said.

On the Republican side, that could be property tax relief or something like Colorado’s “Taxpayer Bill of Rights,” which limits government spending.

On the Democrat side, that could be a nonpartisan redistricting commission or the legalization of medical cannabis.


The legislators elected in 2018 and 2020 will be the ones who approve new maps for legislative and congressional seats in 2021.

It’s likely that the 2020 Census will show the population shifting toward the urban areas, so redistricting could expose some urban-rural divides.

And Democrats are concerned that the Republican majority will draw a new, more heavily Republican 2nd District.

Mike Boyle, a Democrat on the Douglas County Board, said Democrats “were totally asleep at the wheel in 2010” when the last boundaries were drawn and the 2nd District was switched to include western Sarpy County rather than Bellevue.

He’s among those calling for a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

And some Democrats worry that Republicans will try to go even further, such as splitting Douglas County into two congressional seats.

Zoeller said he doesn’t see that as likely.

“I just don’t know of any Republican state senator who has that desire,” he said.

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