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Ricketts Wins Nebraska GOP Gubernatorial Nod with Lowest Support in State History

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A historically competitive primary field finds Ricketts emerging with the lowest winning percentage and third narrowest victory margin on record in a Cornhusker State GOP gubernatorial race

petericketts10.jpgAs expected, Nebraska's Republican gubernatorial primary was a barn burner Tuesday.

The race featured six candidates with ex-Ameritrade executive Pete Ricketts eking out a win by one percentage point over State Attorney General Jon Bruning - 26.5 percent to 25.5 percent.

In third place was State Senator Beau McCoy with 20.9 percent while Nebraska Auditor Mike Foley was fourth with 19.3 percent.

State Senator Tom Carlson placed fifth with 4.1 percent while attorney Bryan Slone came in last with 3.7 percent.

But the GOP field was not simply competitive this cycle. The race was historically tight from first through fourth.

A Smart Politics review of Nebraska election data finds that Pete Ricketts was victorious Tuesday with the lowest percentage of the vote on record in a Nebraska Republican gubernatorial primary and by the third narrowest victory margin.

There have been a total of 38 gubernatorial primary elections in Nebraska since 1916.

(Note: Nebraska was an early adopter of the direct primary, holding its first contest in a gubernatorial race in 1908. However, the Secretary of State's office does not have election records for Nebraska's first four primaries through 1914. The data below is based on the 38 subsequent elections beginning in 1916).

Prior to 2014, the low water mark for a primary win in a GOP gubernatorial race in Nebraska was 32.5 percent - recorded by incumbent Samuel McKelvie during the Election of 1920.

Ricketts was shy of that mark by six percentage points Tuesday, with just a shade over a quarter of the electorate casting its ballots for him.

Four other candidates have won the state's Republican gubernatorial nomination with less than 40 percent of the vote: Abraham Sutton in 1916 (32.7 percent), Dwight Griswold in 1932 (36.3 percent), John Cooper in 1960 (37.7 percent), and Gene Spence in 1994 (38.1 percent).

Each of these races had five or six candidate fields and all but McKelvie lost in the general election.

Before Tuesday's race, the winning candidate in the previous 37 gubernatorial primaries recorded an average of 60.1 percent, or more than double Ricketts' tally.

A GOP Six-Pack

While the close race and low winning percentage by Ricketts can be attributed in part to the large field, the six candidates on the GOP ballot in 2014 is not a record in the Cornhusker State.

Republican voters have had the choice of eight gubernatorial candidates twice before - during the primaries of 1946 (won by Val Peterson over Arthur Weaver) and 1986 (with Kay Orr beating Kermit Brashear).

Seven candidates appeared on the Republican ballot in 1954 in a race won by Victor Anderson and six Republicans also ran for their party's gubernatorial nomination in three other cycles: 1932 (won by Dwight Griswold), 1940 (Griswold), and 1960 (John Cooper).

One thing all of these primaries with a half-dozen or more candidates in the race had in common: there was no Republican incumbent in the mix.

Overall, an average of 4.1 candidates have run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Nebraska since 1916.

Plurality Winners

A divided GOP electorate is not uncommon in Nebraska at the primary phase of the campaign.

In fact, more than one-third of Republican gubernatorial nominees emerged from the primary with a plurality of the vote.

Out of the 38 such contests since 1916, a total of 14 victors were crowned as their party's nominee without majority support:

· 1916: Abraham Sutton (32.7 percent)
· 1920: Incumbent Governor Samuel McKelvie (32.5 percent)
· 1922: Charles Randall (41.6 percent)
· 1924: Adam McMullen (42.7 percent)
· 1932: Dwight Griswold (36.3 percent)
· 1940: Dwight Griswold (42.5 percent)
· 1946: Val Peterson (46.1 percent)
· 1960: John Cooper (37.7 percent)
· 1966: Norbert Tiemann (43.3 percent)
· 1978: Charles Thone (45.3 percent)
· 1986: Kay Orr (40.1 percent)
· 1994: Gene Spence (38.1 percent)
· 1998: Mike Johanns (40.0 percent)
· 2014: Pete Ricketts (26.5 percent)

Receiving a lack of majority support in the primary did not hurt most of these Republican nominees.

Eight of the 13 plurality primary victors won the subsequent general election, or 61.5 percent.

That's higher than the 54.2 percent (13 of 24) of Republicans who were victorious in the general election after winning the primary with a majority of the vote.

Razor-Thin Victories

Ricketts' 1.0-point win over Bruning was nearly the most closely-decided Republican gubernatorial primary in state history.

One has to go back 92 years to the Election of 1922 to find a more narrowly-decided election.

During that Republican primary, Charles Randall beat future Governor Adam McMullen by 0.6 points - 41.6 percent to 41.0 percent.

One other race for the GOP nod was decided by less than one point - in 1916, when Abraham Sutton defeated future Governor Samuel McKelvie by 0.8 points - 32.7 percent to 31.9 percent.

Just six other races were decided by single digits:

· 1932: Dwight Griswold defeated Kenneth Wherry by 2.7 points
· 1970: Incumbent Norbert Tiemann beat Clifton Batchelder by 4.3 points
· 2006: Dave Heineman defeated Tom Osbourne by 6.2 points
· 1994: Gene Spence was victorious over Ralph Knobel by 6.5 points
· 1966: Norbert Tiemann beat Val Peterson by 8.2 points
· 1986: Kay Orr defeated Kermit Brashear by 8.3 points

A Deep Bench?

The strength of the third and fourth place candidates - Beau McCoy and Mike Foley - also set some records Tuesday.

This cycle's primary election was the first time four candidates received more than 15 percent of the vote in a GOP gubernatorial primary.

The previous best for a fourth place candidate was 14.5 percent by Dwain Williams in the 1960 election won by John Cooper. Foley earned 19.2 percent of the vote Tuesday.

Moreover, the 5.5-point difference between first and third place candidates in 2014 was the slimmest margin in party history with no other race seeing a difference in single digits.

Only three other previous races saw less than a 20-point difference between first and third place:

· 1916: 11.5 points between Abraham Sutton (32.7 percent) in first and Clarence Miles (21.2 percent) in third
· 1998: 11.8 points between Mike Johanns (40.0 percent) in first and Jon Christensen (28.2 percent) in third
· 1986: 17.6 points between Kay Orr (40.1 percent) in first and Nancy Hoch (22.5 percent) in third

The 7.3-point difference between Ricketts and Foley in fourth was also a record for the party.

Ricketts will now be a favorite to hold the open seat for the Republicans in the general election where he will square off against Democratic nominee Chuck Hassebrook and Libertarian Mark Elworth.

Nebraska Republican Gubernatorial Election Primary Victory Margins, 1916-2014

Year
# Cand
Winner
%
2nd Place
%
MoV
1916
5
Abraham Sutton
32.7
Samuel McKelvie
31.9
0.8
1918
2
Samuel McKelvie
71.7
Walter Johnson
28.3
43.4
1920
5
Samuel McKelvie
32.5
Ernest Pollard
17.6
14.9
1922
4
Charles Randall
41.6
Adam McMullen
41.0
0.6
1924
5
Adam McMullen
42.7
Albert Mathers
31.1
11.6
1926
3
Adam McMullen
72.0
Fred Johnson
20.7
51.3
1928
3
Arthur Weaver
70.8
Robert Ross
19.4
51.4
1930
2
Arthur Weaver
75.7
Harry Palmer
24.3
51.4
1932
6
Dwight Griswold
36.3
Kenneth Wherry
33.6
2.7
1934
5
Dwight Griswold
52.8
C.A. Sorensen
23.5
29.3
1936
4
Dwight Griswold
68.5
O.S. Spillman
19.7
48.8
1938
4
Charles Warner
55.8
Robert Ross
16.2
39.6
1940
6
Dwight Griswold
42.5
Charles Warner
32.1
10.4
1942
2
Dwight Griswold
77.0
Charles Warner
23.0
54.0
1944
2
Dwight Griswold
84.8
William Brooks
15.2
69.6
1946
8
Val Peterson
46.1
Arthur Weaver
30.3
15.8
1948
5
Val Peterson
81.1
Andrew Swanson
6.6
74.5
1950
3
Val Peterson
69.6
Ernest Adams
22.0
47.6
1952
5
Robert Crosby
52.3
Victor Anderson
39.8
12.5
1954
7
Victor Anderson
60.3
Frederick Wagener
26.4
33.9
1956
2
Victor Anderson
82.6
Edwin Hart
17.4
65.2
1958
2
Victor Anderson
76.4
Louis Hector
23.5
52.9
1960
6
John Cooper
37.7
Hazel Abel
24.1
13.6
1962
3
Fred Seaton
85.2
George Clarke
11.3
73.9
1964
5
Dwight Burney
58.8
Jack Romans
31.5
27.3
1966
5
Norbert Tiemann
43.3
Val Peterson
35.1
8.2
1970
3
Norbert Tiemann
50.5
Clifton Batchelder
46.2
4.3
1974
1
Richard Marvel
99.5
(none)
0.0
99.5
1978
5
Charles Thone
45.3
Robert Phares
24.6
20.7
1982
3
Charles Thone
62.5
Stan Deboer
30.2
32.3
1986
8
Kay Orr
40.1
Kermit Brashear
31.8
8.3
1990
2
Kay Orr
68.1
Mort Sullivan
30.9
37.2
1994
5
Gene Spence
38.1
Ralph Knobel
31.6
6.5
1998
5
Mike Johanns
40.0
John Brewlow
29.9
10.1
2002
2
Mike Johanns
86.8
Robert Wicht
13.2
73.6
2006
3
Dave Heineman
50.4
Tom Osbourne
44.2
6.2
2010
3
Dave Heineman
89.9
Paul Anderson
5.3
84.6
2014
6
Pete Ricketts
26.5
Jon Bruning
25.5
1.0
Table compiled by Smart Politics from data culled from the Nebraska State Canvassing Board and Secretary of State.

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