LINCOLN — Nebraska legislative candidates put twice as much money into their primary election campaigns this year as colleagues did just a decade earlier.
But they fell short of the record-setting spending levels of 2020, according to a World-Herald analysis of campaign finance reports filed with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
Neither finding surprised Gavin Geis, executive director for Common Cause Nebraska, which keeps a close eye on campaign spending trends.
He said several factors drove up spending two years ago, from racial justice issues to former President Donald Trump to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced candidates to curtail traditional face-to-face campaign activities and substitute more costly ways of reaching voters.
“Even for a presidential election it was a big year,” Geis said, while calling the longer-term campaign spending trends “troubling” but not unexpected. “Running for office is only becoming more expensive, and average Nebraskans are getting priced out.”
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Campaign spending in Nebraska legislative races has taken an upward turn since 2012, when the Nebraska Supreme Court tossed out the state’s Campaign Finance Limitation Act. The act had used incentives to encourage candidates to abide by voluntary spending limits.
That year, legislative candidates spent a combined $1.11 million for the May primary, according to the analysis. At $2.19 million, this year’s total was nearly double the amount in 2012 but well below the $2.48 million total from two years ago.
The analysis combined candidates’ spending in the year before the election through mid-June, the end of the primary election reporting period.
The same pattern holds for average spending. A decade ago, legislative candidates spent an average of $15,574 on the primary election. For this year, the average was $33,642, but it was $41,321 two years ago.
Even the top spender this year did not reach the mark set by State Sen. Eliot Bostar two years ago. Bostar spent $192,092 on a hard-fought six-way primary election. He came in second in the primary but won the general election.
This year, Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte poured $159,232 into his bid to keep the seat that Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed him to fill in February. The total includes $70,000 of his own money — a $30,000 donation and $40,000 worth of loans.
He still came in second to Chris Bruns, an opponent who spent less than half as much but had several months’ head start to knock on doors, walk in parades and meet with voters.
Jacobson said he had to spend more to reach voters because he was serving in the Legislature during the week and had less time to campaign. The longtime local banker was named to the District 42 seat when Sen. Mike Groene resigned in the middle of the legislative session.
“I only knocked on doors for two days so I had to rely on media and mailings,” Jacobson said. “The ground campaigns are irreplaceable.”
Traditional door-to-door campaigning remains a key part of winning in Nebraska, and every election cycle sees candidates who rely on shoe leather to defeat opponents with more money. Most successful candidates combine door-knocking with direct mailers, yard signs and other campaign efforts that require money.
Stu Dornan, an Omaha attorney running in District 20, has been walking the district but also spent the second-highest amount in the primary, at $130,616. Dornan said his goal had been to come in first in a “very competitive” district with an open seat. Current Sen. John McCollister is term-limited and cannot seek reelection.
Dornan, who finished first in a three-way primary contest, said he expects to keep up the spending pace into November as he goes head to head with John Fredrickson, a Democrat who spent about half as much.
“I have to keep my foot on the gas pedal with respect to the general election,” said Dornan, a Republican.
Although legislative elections are nonpartisan, and candidates can advance from the primary regardless of their party affiliation, most of the general election races have come down to a registered Republican running against a registered Democrat or independent.
Such matchups bring political parties into the mix. That’s the case for the third- and fourth-ranked campaign spenders, Sens. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington and Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha. Republican Party leaders named both on Twitter as incumbent Democrats they are targeting.
DeBoer, who reported spending $115,552 on her primary, attributed her campaign spending in part to strong support from donors and inflation. She also said she has been working to introduce herself to voters newly included in her district through last year’s redistricting process.
“It’s just kind of my nature to not do anything halfway,” she said.
DeBoer is competing against a Republican, Lou Ann Goding, who spent $41,833 on her campaign. But DeBoer also faces opposition from the Nebraska Republican Party, which spent $19,566 on mailers attacking her.
The GOP spent $20,933 on mailers attacking Cavanaugh, who also was the target of $13,944 worth of mailers sent out by the Nebraska Federation for Children, an independent political group pushing for charter schools and public funding of private and parochial schools.
Cavanaugh said she had anticipated spending more on the 2022 primary than she did four years earlier, because she knew she would be tied up with legislative business and would not have as much time to knock on doors.
“It was important to remind people to get out and vote,” she said.
She spent $101,834 on her primary campaign. Christian Mirch, the Republican candidate who came in second, spent $78,863, enough to make him the fifth-highest spender in the legislative primary election.