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ELECTION UPDATES: Bacon edges ahead of Vargas as 2nd once again proves nail-biter

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Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen lays out what he wants to do if elected.

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon surged ahead of challenger Tony Vargas late Tuesday night as the 2nd District race for Congress was once again proving a nail-biter.

As of 10:45 p.m., Republican Bacon led Democrat Vargas by 1,300 votes out of more than 168,000 cast. Those results erased a lead Vargas had from the time the polls closed at 8 p.m. and the first results began rolling in.

As it has many times, the Omaha-based district once again proved one of the nation’s biggest congressional battlegrounds, a swing district where Democrats and Republicans tend to battle on near-equal footing.

Most of the ballots counted in the earliest returns were early-voting ballots cast in Douglas County, which were expected to skew Democratic. Bacon did much better with voters who went to the polls Tuesday.

By 9:50 as more votes were counted, Vargas’ lead was down to just 20 votes out of nearly 148,000 cast.

Then the next batch of Douglas County results came in at 10:45, the scales tipped to Bacon.

It was unclear how many ballots remained to be counted. Bacon, first elected in 2016, is seeking a fourth term in Washington.

Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Flood was re-elected in Nebraska's 1st Congressional District Tuesday.

Much like in the 2nd, Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln had led Flood in early returns that were heavily dominated by her home county of Lancaster.

But as the results came in from more rural parts of the district — including Flood's home city of Norfolk — he surged to the front by 9:45 p.m. He had cruised to a comfortable margin by 11 p.m., leading by more than 20,000 votes.

Flood beat Pansing Brooks in a special election in June that pitted fellow members of the Nebraska Legislature.

The election was held after long-time GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry resigned his seat. Fortenberry had been convicted of three felonies related to a federal investigation of in the wake of a criminal conviction.

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Kirk Penner, Gov. Pete Ricketts' appointee to the Nebraska State Board of Education, was locked in a tight race for his seat, while embattled Democrat Deborah Neary seemed to be fending off a challenge to her re-election bid.

After a contentious election marked by bitter fights over social and cultural issues in the public schools, voters appeared to be delivering mixed results Tuesday night.

Thousands of votes had yet to be counted, particularly in central and western Nebraska.

Two of the four conservatives backed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts — Republicans Sherry Jones of Grand Island and Elizabeth Tegtmeier of North Platte — were ahead by wide margins over Democrat Danielle Helzer of Grand Island and incumbent Republican Robin Stevens of Gothenburg.

Jones was pulling about 65% of the vote, and Tegtmeier over 70%.

Penner, a Republican Aurora businessman appointed by Ricketts last December, moved slightly ahead of retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln education professor Helen Raikes after trailing her in earlier returns.

Raikes, a registered independent, held a similar lead in the primary before Penner went ahead with a late surge.

Penner campaigned against comprehensive sexuality education and critical race theory.

Neary was holding her own in District 8 in Douglas County despite criticism for her handling of proposed health-education standards. Critics had accused her of meddling in the standards-writing process to produce progressive standards, but she maintained she did nothing wrong.

Neary had about 53% of the vote against Republican Marni Hodgen.

* * * * * * 

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Flood appeared headed to re-election in Nebraska's 1st Congressional District Tuesday, while the Omaha-based 2nd District remained too close to call.

In the 1st District, Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln had led Flood in early returns that were heavily dominated by her home county of Lancaster. But as the results came in from more rural parts of the district — including Flood's home city of Norfolk — he surged to the front by 9:45 p.m. and was expected to increase his margins.

The crowd erupted in cheers at Lincoln Station in Lincoln at 8 p.m. as the earliest poll results showed Pansing Brooks well out in front. However, two-thirds of the early votes counted in the district came from Lancaster. By 9:20 p.m., the vote count showed them virtually tied.

Flood beat Pansing Brooks in a special election in June that pitted fellow members of the Nebraska Legislature.

The election was held after long-time GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry resigned his seat. Fortenberry had been convicted of three felonies related to a federal  investigation of in the wake of a criminal conviction.

In the Omaha-based 2nd District, Democratic challenger Tony Vargas was leading GOP incumbent Don Bacon by just 20 votes at 9:50 p.m. in a race that was expected to last into the night. Most of ballots counted in the earliest returns were early-voting ballots cast in Douglas County, which were expected to skew Democratic. Bacon did much better with voters who went to the polls Tuesday.

Bacon was first elected in 2016. Vargas is a current state senator.

In western and central Nebraska’s 3rd District, Republican Adrian Smith was not seriously challenged. He was first elected in 2006.

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Two separate ballot measures to implement photo ID for voting in future elections and gradually raise the minimum wage appeared headed to victory Tuesday night.

Initiative 433 will annually increase the state’s minimum up to $15 per hour by 2026 and provide cost of living increases starting in 2027. Initiative 432 will implement a photo ID requirement for voters to vote in future elections.

The minimum wage was polling at well over 60% support an hour and a half after polls had closed Tuesday night.

The voter ID measure was at well over 50% and climbing as more results came in from rural parts of the state. The measure was losing badly in Lancaster County and barely prevailing in Douglas County.

The minimum wage increase got off to a strong start, garnering about 70% support in the earliest returns. Campaign manager Kate Wolfe said she was encouraged, believing the issue resonates with Nebraskans.

“As Nebraskans, we are people who care deeply about the wellbeing of our neighbors, friends and family. That often translates in these ballot initiatives where the citizens get to participate in probably the closest action of direct democracy as we have,” she said.

Leading up to the election, supporters argued that raising wages would be a boon to the state’s economy. Joey Adler Ruane, policy director at Open Sky Institute, previously said the initiative would be enough to lift more than 10,000 Nebraskans out of poverty.

Critics, which include Gov. Pete Ricketts, have contended the measure would, among other things, have hurt small businesses by adding costs. Ricketts has argued the market should determine wages, not the government.

In 2014 Nebraska voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of raising the minimum wage from the federal minimum rate of $7.25 per hour. The minimum wage has been $9 per hour since 2016.

After trailing in early results, Initiative 432 took a solid lead at more than 10 percentage points close to 9 p.m. The initiative will have put Nebraska among a majority of states to require people to present photo ID to vote in future elections, joining a majority of states in implementing some version of photo ID.

“We’re thrilled to see the results of tonight,” said State Sen. Julie Slama, who led the petition drive to get the initiative on the ballot. “It’s no surprise to me that Nebraska voters have overwhelmingly decided to support a commonsense election security measure.”

Now that the initiative appeared headed toward passing, it will be up to the Nebraska Legislature to approve implementation language during the next legislative session. Slama said she “is looking forward” to leading that effort.

* * * * 

Jim Pillen of Columbus was elected Nebraska’s 41st governor Tuesday, preserving the Republican Party’s two-decade-plus hold on the state’s top office.

Pillen, owner of a large hog operation in northeast Nebraska and a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, had a lead of nearly 5 percentage points over Democrat Carol Blood of Bellevue as of 9 p.m.

Early returns that had heavily skewed to Democratic-leaning Douglas and Lancaster counties had Blood well out in front. But as results came in from across the state, Pillen raced to the front, a lead that he was not expected to give up.

Pillen was generally favored to win in the GOP-leaning state. Republicans have recently had a stranglehold on the Nebraska governor’s office, with a Democrat last elected to the office in 1994.

Blood had spoken optimistically before the first returns came out, saying she felt her team had run a good campaign.

“We’re definitely a grassroots campaign — we didn’t just say it, we did it," Blood said. "We’ve been working hard with grit and determination.”

The results showing Pillen way down didn't shake those who were at his election-night party in Lincoln. Joe Kelly, Pillen’s running mate, took the stage shortly afterwards to begin a series of speeches supporting Pillen.

Mike Moser, a state senator from Columbus, said he expected Pillen to prevail. He said some of Pillen’s pillar campaign platforms of conservative values and business strategies “resonated” with Nebraska voters.

“Nebraska will make the right decision,” Moser said.

Republicans were also expected to claim all the other state constitutional offices, with Democrats fielding no candidates in the races: Mike Hilgers for Attorney General, Mike Foley for State Auditor, Bob Evnen for Secretary of State and John Murante for State Treasurer. Evnen and Murante are both incumbents seeking re-election.

One other competitive race that did not appear too early to call was the race for Douglas County Attorney. The blue wave of early voting for Democrats in Douglas County didn’t take one candidate along for the ride.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who switched to the Republican Party after the state Democratic Party accused him of "perpetuating white supremacy" in a charging decision, was beating his Democratic challenger Dave Pantos 54% to 46% in the first results. Every other Democrat in Douglas County was beating their challenger in early voting counts.

Omaha World-Herald Election Guide 2022

Keep informed on all the major races in today's general election by checking out our Omaha World-Herald 2022 election guide. 

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Reporter - Metro News

Henry is a general assignment reporter, but his specialty is deep dives into state issues and public policy. He's also into the numbers behind a story, yet to meet a spreadsheet he didn't like. Follow him on Twitter @HenryCordes. Phone: 402-444-1130.

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