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Preston Love Jr. announces write-in candidacy against Sen. Ben Sasse
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Preston Love Jr. announces write-in candidacy against Sen. Ben Sasse

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North Omaha activist Preston Love Jr. made history Thursday with a campaign bid he hoped could be made by someone else.

The Nebraska Democratic Party announced its support for Love as its favored write-in candidate, making him Nebraska’s first Black U.S. Senate candidate backed by a major political party in a general election.

Love and the state Democratic Party wanted Omaha mental health practitioner Alisha Shelton to be on the November ballot to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Ben Sasse.

But Omaha baker Chris Janicek stayed in the race, ignoring demands from the state party and fellow Democrats that he step aside after he sent lewd texts about his campaign’s fundraising director.

Janicek’s continued candidacy left Shelton no legal way to run. State law prohibits a candidate who loses in a party primary from filing as a write-in candidate. Shelton finished third, behind Janicek and Angie Philips in the Democratic primary in May.

That’s how Love ended up speaking to reporters and supporters Thursday at North Omaha’s Big Mama’s Kitchen, discussing his vision for a political system that recognizes every Nebraskan, not just some.

“I think people should recognize that what my candidacy represents is more than my race,” said Love, who is 78. “It’s my culture. You’re affirming that someone can have meager beginnings.”

He encouraged Nebraskans to vote for “love over hate,” saying he would pursue affordable health care, protect Social Security, protect people with preexisting conditions and work for police reform.

He said he’s just as excited to work for a rancher in Ogallala as he is for economic redevelopment in North Omaha.

Love and party leaders said they know that his candidacy could tilt the race even more in favor of Sasse, amplifying a 200,000-person statewide GOP registration advantage by splitting Democratic votes between Love and Janicek, whose name will appear on the ballot.

“I did not want to get in the race,” Love told The World-Herald, citing his experience in elections since 1980. “I am under no illusions that there is a logical or statistically possible path to win.”

But Love’s decision to run could have strategic value in other races, political observers said. His candidacy could influence races where the electoral math works more in Democrats’ favor.

Experts said Love’s candidacy might improve the calculus for a pair of Democrats in the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District — Joe Biden for president and Kara Eastman for Congress.

Local polling shows both Democrats competitive against GOP incumbents — Biden against President Donald Trump to win the 2nd District, and thus pick up a single electoral vote; and Eastman versus incumbent Republican Rep. Don Bacon.

“Democrats need strong turnout in North and South Omaha, and Preston Love should help that turnout quite a bit,” said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Landow said Love might be able to help Biden, Eastman and candidates lower on the ballot.

Eastman agreed, saying Love’s entry into the race gives people “someone to vote for” instead of just “something to vote against.”

“Having Preston on the ballot gives people hope,” she said.

State party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb laughed when asked if boosting those races was the party’s plan. She said that she will not apologize for doing the right thing and that Love gives Democrats a better option than Sasse or a candidate she said should have resigned, referring to Janicek.

The Nebraska Republican Party on Wednesday accused Kleeb, Eastman and Nebraska Democrats of being hypocritical by putting up with Janicek’s offensive online comments about women for years.

The GOP published a list of Janicek’s online comments about women and included some of Kleeb’s online comments about him.

“They should face facts: Democrats and Janicek are in the dumpster fire together,” said Ryan Hamilton, the state GOP’s executive director.

Kleeb called the GOP effort a waste of an intern’s time and said she doesn’t need a lecture on candidate behavior from Republicans.

“We stood up to Chris,” she said. “The GOP has yet to stand up to Trump.”

Love, in an interview, acknowledged that his run is meant to do more than give Democrats a choice. He hopes to motivate more Democrats and left-leaning independents to vote.

“I will feel very much as if I have won the race if I’m able to help with that,” he said of bringing more votes to Biden and Eastman. “I will be able to go out to pasture and feel as if I’d done my job.”

He and Kleeb both said that people just need to write in the word “Love” to cast their ballot for Preston Love.

Love, while he said he appreciated the historic nature of his and Shelton’s bids, said he won’t describe them as progress when American politics are once again roiling in tumult similar to the late 1960s.

He considers himself a student of history, he said, and a part of its march. Love, an author, teaches Black Studies at UNO and served as campaign manager for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1984.

He has worked in Chicago’s rough-and-tumble politics and played football for coach Bob Devaney at Nebraska. He said he’s not intimidated to square off against Sasse or Janicek, but he said he won’t attack.

Sasse and Janicek offered no immediate comment on Love’s entry into the race.

Sasse, 48, made news this week by discussing a series of changes he’d like to see in the Senate in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Among them, he suggested abolishing the 17th Amendment, which provides for direct election in Senate races. He suggested returning the selection to state legislatures, as the framers intended.

Shelton, who joined Love for his announcement Thursday, said in a recent interview that she has turned her attention toward a 2024 Senate run for the seat held by Republican Sen. Deb Fischer.

On Thursday, Shelton said she was proud to endorse Love, a man she said supports her values and those of the Democratic Party. And Love, pointing to Shelton, said the future of the party is in “good hands.”

Nebraska ballots by mail will be sent out by the end of September. In-person voting is set for Nov. 3.

Editor’s note: Love has been a community columnist for The World-Herald since June. His column will be suspended until after the election.

Photos: Nebraska’s members of Congress

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