A little mayoral race in Omaha, Nebraska got big attention this week. Mayor Jean Stothert won re-election to another four-year term, beating back former state Sen. Heath Mello. Both candidates originally hoped to focus on local issues affecting the city, but national headlines placed the campaign at the forefront of major political debate.
Former Democratic state Sen. Heath Mello, who had represented a district in the area, failed to unseat Republican Jean Stothert. The incumbent mayor won on Tuesday 53 to 46 percent. Stothert was able to capitalize off big wins in the western portion of the city – winning by a margin of 64 percent in the three most western districts. Mello was able to win the other four districts, however, his margins of victory were much smaller and voter turnout was lower.
The two candidates focused mostly on local issues during the campaign. Hotly debated topics regarded law enforcement and the use of annexation (although Mello did try to capitalize off anti-Trump momentum). Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning starred in an anti-Stothert ad, and the firefighters union spent thousands in an attempt to elect Mello.
However, it was the former state senator’s stance on abortion rights that catapulted the race into national airwaves.
Heath Mello, a Democrat and staunch Catholic, served as a pro-life lawmaker in the Nebraska legislature. Some prominent players on the left had issues with the Democratic Party supporting his candidacy.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, released a scathing statement criticizing the DNC’s support of Mello, calling the move “politically stupid.” In response to the backlash, DNC Chair Tom Perez released a subsequent statement, essentially claiming the party should only back pro-choice candidates.
Immediately a philosophical debate engulfed party leaders as to whether a litmus test should be forced upon Democrats, even ones running in conservative districts.
The extra press did make for a more exciting race in Omaha. Bernie Sanders, an unapologetic supporter of abortion rights, campaigned on behalf of Mello. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did the same for Stothert.
Ultimately, Mello came up short. The race in Omaha is over, but debate still remains within liberal circles as to whether they should capitulate on partisan orthodoxy in parts of the country that haven’t been so friendly to them. More pragmatic Democrats think they should, leaders on the pro-choice front think they should not and DNC Chair Tom Perez is seemingly stuck in the middle trying to keep his camp together.
Perez will have to get his house in order sooner rather than later. The Democratic Party has a daunting senate map waiting in 2018 – the vast majority of seats up for grabs are held by their caucus. The only three Democrat senators left who identify as pro-life are among those up for re-election next year: Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. All three of these states voted for Trump in 2016.