- Associated Press - Monday, November 7, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - To outsiders, Nebraska’s upcoming general election could seem like a ho-hum affair with no U.S. Senate or governor’s races on the ballot.

For Republican leaders, though, the election is a chance to reassert the state’s conservative traditions by reinstating the death penalty, trying to oust a Democratic congressman and electing a more conservative Legislature by replacing some GOP lawmakers who have opposed Gov. Pete Ricketts on key issues.

Conservatives, including Ricketts, have argued that lawmakers, including some Republicans, were out of touch with their constituents when they abolished the death penalty, raised the state fuel tax and allowed driver’s licenses for certain youths who entered the country illegally but were granted lawful presence under the Obama administration.

Ricketts has openly called for replacing some GOP incumbents with more conservative candidates, but the Nebraska Republican Party has concentrated on flipping seats held by Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.

“I feel like we’re in a good position,” said Bud Synhorst, the party’s executive director. “People are paying attention. I do believe that based on how things look in this election, we’ll have a Legislature that lines up ideologically with the conservativism of Nebraskans.”

Even though some conservative state senators voted to abolish capital punishment last year, organizers of the group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said they’re confident voters will reinstate it. Death penalty opponents have appealed to Catholic voters and fiscal conservatives with arguments that the punishment defies church doctrine, could risk innocent lives and costs too much.

The GOP is also pushing to reclaim the Omaha-centric 2nd Congressional District, which Democrat Brad Ashford won in 2014 when he unseated eight-term Republican Rep. Lee Terry. Ashford has presented himself as an advocate for bipartisanship in gridlocked Washington, while his GOP challenger Don Bacon has pitched himself as an outsider.

In the 1st district, GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry is expected to win easily, and 3rd district Republican Rep. Adrian Smith is running unopposed.

Since the May primary, Nebraska’s GOP has expanded its already large voter advantage. Roughly 565,000 voters are registered as Republican, an increase of more than 15,000 since May, according to the Nebraska secretary of state’s office.

The number of Democratic voters grew by roughly 9,300, to a statewide total of nearly 360,000. Nearly 11,000 voters have registered as Libertarians, an increase of 3,400, while the number of nonpartisan voters has jumped by nearly 13,000 to more than 246,000.

Republican gains in the Legislature don’t guarantee that senators will adhere to a party line. For instance, the decision to abolish the death penalty and raise the gas tax passed because Republican lawmakers joined forces with Democrats.

Still, some lawmakers said they expect a more right-leaning Legislature when senators convene for their next regular session in January. Voters “have more options” in legislative races than in previous years because more conservative candidates have stepped forward, said Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte.

Groene said some senators’ votes on the death penalty and immigration-related issues may come back to haunt them. At least five incumbents appear to face serious threats in the general election, as three Republicans and two Democrats finished second to conservative challengers in the primary.

“We’ve had some black and white issues that defined candidates clearly, and it brought challengers forward,” Groene said. “We’re still a conservative state.”

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