Curt Friesen turned the idea over in his head for years, but always left it there instead of actually signing his name before the Secretary of State. Why run for Legislature, he figured, when the person there is doing a good job and is popular among voters?
Others in the 24th legislative district that covers York, Seward and part of Polk counties must have figured the same.
Sen. Elaine Stuhr of Bradshaw, who has represented the district for more than a decade, ran unopposed in 2002.
But now things are different, much different, both for Friesen and other legislative hopefuls across the state. The reason: term limits.
A court challenge of term limits and the fact 20 state senators are entering their final session because of them has reignited debate over the rationale of the voter-approved law. But the law is generating more than talk: It’s also increasing the number of candidates, and rather quickly.
Three candidates, including Friesen, already are lined up to compete for the District 24 seat now held by Stuhr — and the filing deadline for candidates is still two months away.
“If term limits were not in place I wouldn’t have run,” said Friesen.
That logic appears to have caught on in legislative districts across the state — namely, those being hit first by term limits.
The total number of candidates for all 24 seats up for grabs this year is on pace to surpass totals from recent elections. All told, 43 people have filed for candidacy for the Legislature so far, just seven short of the 50 that ran in 2002 and 12 shy of the 55 than ran in 2004.
Secretary of State John Gale said he expects a spurt of filings at the end of January and that “we could exceed anything we saw in 2002 and 2004.
“With the number of open seats, I really don’t question the principle that an open seat definitely attracts more candidates,” Gale said. “I am definitely anticipating additional filings.”
The effect term limits has on candidate numbers is maybe best measured by looking at seats the law will vacate this year. Already, the number of candidates for those 20 term-limited seats, including Stuhr’s, has surpassed the total number of candidate for those same seats in 2002.
That year, 33 people ran for the 20 seats, and just 13 of those were non-incumbents. So far this election season, 39 candidates have filed with the Secretary of State for the 20 seats, an increase of 26 non-incumbents over 2002.
“Very clearly, people are paying attention to open seats,” said Gale.
That will mean competition for some seats that have lacked it for some time. In western Nebraska’s District 44, Sen. Tom Baker of Trenton, who will have to leave after this legislative session because of term limits, ran unopposed in 2002.
The number of candidates for the same seat now, two months before the filing deadline: Four.
Political observers and Gale detect more than larger numbers when they look at candidates registered so far.
“I thought with this many open seats you’d see a lot of candidates, but I think many people are surprised at the high quality of the candidates,” said political consultant Phil Young, who is working for some legislative candidates.
All three of the candidates for Stuhr’s seat, for example, have experience in public office. Friesen serves on the Governor’s Water Policy Task Force and is former mayor of Henderson. Greg Adams is mayor of York, and Jim Ruby is former Seward County attorney.
“A lot of legislative observers, either because there haven’t been a lot of challengers, or the fact the challengers maybe sometimes fell into the area of perennial candidates … thought there was a lack of interest in serving,” Young said. “But I think what you’re seeing now is that a lot of people are interested in serving.”
Reach Nate Jenkins at 473-7223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key election dates for state offices:
Feb. 15: Last day for incumbents to file for the primary election. Incumbents include those who hold offices other than those they are seeking. A mayor seeking a legislative seat, for example, is considered an incumbent.
March 1: Last day non-incumbents can file.
May 1: Last day to register to vote in person.
May 9: Primary election day.
Nov. 7: General election day.