Gov. Pete Ricketts and Democratic challenger Bob Krist sailed through their primary election tests Tuesday night, en route to a general election showdown that is likely to be overflowing with division over state priorities and Ricketts' first-term record.
Meanwhile, Democratic Senate candidate Jane Raybould claimed her party's nomination and an opportunity to go head-to-head with Republican Sen. Deb Fischer in a clash that could reach its conclusion at a time when Washington may be in the grip of political turmoil.
Those two battles for Nebraska's premier statewide offices will play out in an incendiary year when the political landscape is dominated by the shadow of President Donald Trump and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ever-widening investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The president tweeted his support for Fischer on election morning: "Nebraska — make sure you get out to the polls and VOTE for Deb Fischer today!"
Now comes the hard part for the Democratic nominees.
Ricketts and Fischer enjoy the advantages of incumbency and their Republican identification in a state that has delivered GOP knockout victories in major statewide races for the past decade.
They also will have far more campaign resources to deliver their message.
"Any Democrat running statewide faces a major uphill battle," University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Paul Landow says.
Landow, deeply immersed inside Nebraska politics for several decades before he joined the UNO faculty in 2009, was chief of staff to former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and before that served as former Democratic Rep. Peter Hoagland's chief of staff.
"This is a conservative state and a Republican state and it votes that way," he said in looking ahead. "I think Republican dominance is here to stay for the foreseeable future."
The Republican margin in the four most recent senatorial and gubernatorial contests has ranged from 97,000 votes to 233,000 votes.
Both Ricketts and Fischer enter this year's general election cycle with seven-figure war chests that can dominate 30-second TV advertising. Ricketts has nearly $1.3 million in cash on hand and Fischer has $2.5 million available.
Krist and Raybould are poised to wage aggressive campaigns.
In remarks at a victory celebration in Omaha, Krist said the governor "has had four years to restore fairness to our property tax system" and his inability to do so represents "a failure of leadership."
Krist said he would be "a governor who's unafraid to wipe the slate clean and build a tax system that is fair to hard-working Nebraskans."
The new Democratic nominee also centered on a number of other issues, including the state's prison system, which he described as "a mess."
Wednesday, Krist, a 21-year Air Force veteran, will pilot an aircraft from Omaha to Scottsbluff as he immediately plunges into a three-day campaign tour that will take him to 10 communities across the state, with a stop in Bridgeport scheduled to focus a spotlight on the property tax issue.
Ricketts, who was elected governor in 2014, has built a conservative fiscal record during his first term.
The governor points to a sharp reduction in the growth of state spending, along with success in ruling out any tax increases while also instituting a range of private sector-oriented government reform.
Meanwhile, Ricketts has focused on a pledge to grow the state with economic development and job creation driving that train.
Krist's journey to the Democratic nomination followed a winding path.
A Republican who has voted independently in the Legislature, Krist initially planned to challenge Ricketts as an independent nonpartisan candidate in the general election, skipping the primary.
Facing statutory challenges, he then considered formation of a new party to serve as a vehicle for his candidacy, but ultimately chose to change political parties and enter the Democratic primary election.
The wild-card factor hanging over the gubernatorial contest may be the growing and widespread demand, especially in rural Nebraska, for property tax relief.
With the sudden abandonment of a statewide petition drive to place a billion-dollar property tax relief initiative on the November ballot, that issue seeps more deeply into the governor's race now.
Fischer has built a conservative record in the Senate, where she is a member of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership team.
Recently, Fischer gained a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, erasing one of the pillars of Raybould's campaign message, which included a pledge to seek a seat for Nebraska at the agriculture table.
Fischer, a Valentine cattle rancher and former two-term state senator, has focused on national defense issues as chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces and on highway transportation issues as chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on surface transportation.
Raybould, a member of the Lincoln City Council, jumped into the Senate race last August and formally filed as a candidate in December.
Among her priorities have been support for trade opportunities for Nebraska agriculture that have been endangered, and sometimes reduced, by Trump administration policies, along with pledges to protect Social Security, Medicare and access to affordable health care.
Raybould has also expressed support for protection of so-called Dreamer youths whose continued legal presence in the United States is threatened by Trump's decision to revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive action taken by former President Barack Obama.
"Over the next six months, we're going to show Nebraskans that they have a choice," Raybould said Tuesday night.
Republican Matt Schulte, a Lincoln school board member, and Democrat Rachel Garver, a political novice with experience in managing a financial office, will face off for the Lancaster County treasurer’s job in the November general election.
Incumbent county treasurer Andy Stebbing, who is facing five felony charges related to selling used vehicles, lost his bid for the Republican nomination to a third term.
Both nominees touted their work history during the campaign, but the underlying theme across the board was trust. The challengers in both parties pointed to their own reputations for integrity and honesty, with Stebbing’s criminal charges as a quiet backdrop.
Stebbing, who ran third in the field of three candidates, has good name recognition after holding office for seven years and running in three previous elections. But he had little support from the Republican establishment, was not even listed as a candidate on the county Republican website and raised very little money this year, less than $4,000.
Schulte, executive director of Campus Life, beat both Stebbing and political newcomer Allen Simpson, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Nebraska Air National Guard, for the Republican nomination.
Schulte, 38, said he was honored by the nomination and enjoyed getting out and knocking on doors and meeting a lot of people.
"I have been encouraged by the amount of support I’ve had across the county. People clearly were looking for a change in leadership because of the question of character," he said.
Garver, a financial manager in the Office of Student Accounts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, beat Andrew Stock, who teaches political science at Central Community College, for the Democratic nomination.
Garver, who was celebrating with other Democrats in downtown Lincoln on Tuesday evening, said campaigning was great.
"I worked hard. My team worked hard. I had a lot of great volunteers," Garver, 59, said about her first election bid.
Garver said she hadn't really thought about what she might say if she won. "I didn't want to get too excited. I wasn't really wanting to count my chickens before they are hatched."
Garver ran on her 24 years of experience, pointing out that she is responsible for more than $400 million in billing and collections annually.
She also provides programming and technological advancement for the UNL student accounts office and is responsible for professional staff supervision.
Schulte is the most experienced campaigner of the challengers, both Republican and Democrat, and he raised the most money ($28,000) ahead of the primary.
Schulte pointed to his experience as Campus Life director and as a small-business owner. During the campaign, he said he would explore creating a kiosk system in rural communities where people could pay for vehicle registration and property taxes and promised to look into additional treasurer office locations in Lincoln.
Stebbing will serve as treasurer until the new treasurer, elected in the fall, takes office in January.
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Wednesday canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea and threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over Washington-Seoul military exercises that Pyongyang has long claimed are invasion rehearsals.
The surprise declaration, which came in a pre-dawn dispatch in North Korea's state media, appears to cool what had been an unusual flurry of outreach from a country that last year conducted a provocative series of weapons tests that had many fearing the region was on the edge of war. It's still unclear, however, whether the North intends to scuttle all diplomacy or merely wants to gain leverage ahead of the planned June 12 talks between Kim and Trump.
The statement was released hours before the two Koreas were to meet at a border village to discuss setting up talks aimed at reducing military tension along the world's most heavily armed border and restarting reunions between families separated by the Korean War.
The North's Korean Central News Agency called the two-week-long Max Thunder drills, which began Monday and reportedly include about 100 aircraft, an "intended military provocation" and an "apparent challenge" to an April summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, when the rival leaders met on their border and agreed to reduce animosity and set up more high-level exchanges.
"The United States must carefully contemplate the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit amid the provocative military ruckus that it's causing with South Korean authorities," the North said. "We'll keenly monitor how the United States and South Korean authorities will react."
Annual military drills between the U.S. and South Korea have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, and analysts have wondered whether their continuation would hurt the detente that, since an outreach by Kim in January, has replaced the insults and threats of war. Earlier — and much larger — springtime drills, which Washington and Seoul toned down, went off without the North's typically fiery condemnation or accompanying weapons tests.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department emphasized that Kim had previously indicated he understood the need and purpose of the U.S. continuing its long-planned joint exercises with South Korea. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. had not heard anything directly from Pyongyang or Seoul that would change that.
"We will continue to go ahead and plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un," Nauert said.
Army Col. Rob Manning said the current exercise is part of the U.S. and South Korea's "routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness." Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said the purpose of Max Thunder and exercise Foal Eagle — another training event — is to enhance the two nations' abilities to operate together to defend South Korea.
"The defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed," Manning said.
The U.S. and South Korea delayed an earlier round of drills in the spring because of the North-South diplomacy surrounding February's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, which saw Kim send his sister to the opening ceremonies.
Kim told visiting South Korean officials in March that he "understands" the drills would take place and expressed hope that they'll be modified once the situation on the peninsula stabilizes, according to the South Korean government.
South Korea didn't immediately make any official response to the North's announcement.
The North's statement comes amid a flurry of surprising moves from the North in recent weeks.
Tuesday, South Korea's military said North Korea was moving ahead with plans to close its nuclear test site next week, an assessment backed by U.S. researchers, who say satellite images show the North has begun dismantling facilities at the site.
The site's closure was set to come before the Kim-Trump summit, which had been shaping up as a crucial moment in the decades-long push to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North, which is closing in on the ability to viably target the mainland United States with its long-range nuclear-armed missiles.