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Poll: Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts Vulnerable to Independent Challenger

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts (R) begins the 2018 election cycle with lukewarm political standing and may be vulnerable to a strong challenge from an independent candidate.

According to a recent survey of likely voters in next year’s election — commissioned by independent gubernatorial candidate and State Senator Bob Krist‘s campaign — more voters are inclined to support someone new for governor than say they would re-elect the incumbent.

Independent voters in particular have soured on Ricketts and there is an appetite for a candidate who exists beyond the boundaries of the traditional two-party system.

The following are some key findings from this survey:

1) “Nebraska remains a Republican state, but the Republican brand is damaged. Among likely 2018 voters, Republicans hold a massive 25-point advantage in partisan self-identification over Democrats. Despite this advantage, however, impressions of the GOP are not particularly strong here. Voters view the Republican Party favorably by a slim 43 – 40 percent margin. Self-described Independent voters view the GOP unfavorably by a whopping 23 – 54 percent margin.”

2) “Impressions of Democrats are not good. While voters are hardly over the moon about Republicans in this conservative state, there does not appear to be a clear path for a Democrat. Impressions of the Democratic Party here are unfavorable by a 25 – 57 percent margin.”

3) “Voters are very open to another choice in Nebraska. We read the following two statements to voters and asked them to tell us which one was closer to their own view: By a 61–30 percent margin, Nebraskans said they felt voters deserved another choice outside of the two major political parties. While Independent voters overwhelmingly felt this way, even Democrats and Republicans were more likely to support the idea of other options.”

The survey was conducted by the Washington DC-based GBA Strategies, among 500 likely voters in the 2018 general election in Nebraska. Interviews were conducted between July 24-26 on land lines and cell phones. Results carry a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence interval.

In light of the survey results, I spoke with Dan Parsons, a consultant and communications director for Bob Krist. Krist recently changed his voter registration from Republican to independent, and announced his 2018 campaign to run against Ricketts.

Parsons told me that there are many reasons why Ricketts is on shaky ground with voters going into 2018. One of them is property taxes in Nebraska:

“The inability to get anything done on property taxes in Nebraska is a familiar refrain in Nebraskan politics from the agriculture sector to home owners in the major metropolitan areas. There’s a groundswell of frustration that the governor has not been able to find a solution to the property tax mess. It’s been window dressing, poking around the edges, not a solution.

The system in Nebraska has for years relied on property taxes levied at the local level to fund the education system and to fund other government programs and they keep going through the roof. Many people feel that it’s not balanced in how we tax people. Senator Krist has supported a more balanced approach to taxes. Not just lowering property taxes, but balancing a three-legged stool between sales tax, income tax, and property tax.”

Another is the social safety net:

“One of the reasons [Senator Krist] decided to run, was a speech he gave on the floor of the legislature that related to the budget. Constitutionally we have to balance the budget in Nebraska. So naturally there were places that had to be cut.

Well the governor’s office, influenced by the state GOP, tried to cut a lot of services, which in Senator Krist’s view was not being compassionate against populations that are vulnerable, like the developmentally disabled and the elderly. So Krist gave an impassioned speech and many people representative of those constituents were in the gallery that day. It shows his compassion and his willingness to take on party bosses.”

Then there is the Nebraska prison system:

“We’ve had a number of very high profile disturbances at some of our state penitentiaries. There have been some deaths of inmates. Thankfully no personnel have been killed yet, although there have been some injuries. There was a riot.

Like a lot of states we are way over capacity, which is leading to a lot of these problems. There’s a sense of frustration from the legislature that this problem with corrections is not being solved. That rests with the governor’s office. Krist has served on some special committees to look into corrections. He understands that more needs to be done. He has asked for revisions in personnel, as far as how much overtime these personnel are forced to serve, which leads to poor performance.”

And finally the non-partisan nature of Nebraskan politics:

A very partisan Republican governor passed– in the cover of darkness in an omnibus bill– [a provision] that increased the number of signatures needed to get an independent candidate on to the ballot. Now you need over 125,000 signatures to get an independent on the ballot. That’s a very high threshold for Nebraska. That’s the very highest threshold for an independent in the United States.

That’s insane for a state that prides itself on being independent and has the only nonpartisan legislature in America– passes a bill that creates the highest threshold for an independent candidate to get on the ballot. So the route [Krist] has to take is to form a political party.

That’s indicative of the independent spirit we have in Nebraska. This poll dug down into the independent, nonpartisan tradition that is still here, even though it may not express itself in the ballot box all the time, and I attribute that to a lack of good candidates. But we do have a tradition of electing the person and not the party, and I think this poll gets back to that attitude with the willingness to consider an independent candidate.

Whoever voters decide to elect to the governor’s office in Nebraska next year, it is always a good sign of electoral open mindedness to see a viable, experienced, well-credentialed independent candidate running for statewide office.

Image: Nebraska State Sen. Bob Krist