Click here to watch a video interview of mayoral hopefuls Jim Suttle and Jean Stothert.
There's no question that Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle had a rough primary election last week.
But despite his weak showing, Suttle still has a chance to catch up to front-runner Jean Stothert.
A World-Herald analysis of the primary numbers as well as results from the 2009 mayoral elections and the 2011 recall vote suggest that Suttle still has a path to retaining the Mayor's Office.
But the same analysis shows that Suttle's margin for error is slim. And it's also possible that differences between 2009 and 2013 will allow Stothert to hold off any late Suttle charge to the finish line.
The bottom line, however, is that the primary results don't guarantee that Stothert has the election in the bag.
Last week Suttle mustered enough votes to advance to the May general election, but he couldn't even hit 25 percent in his bid for a second term. Not only did he trail Stothert, a City Council member who represents southwest Omaha, but the combined total for Stothert and two other Republican challengers was nearly as many votes as Suttle needed to be elected in 2009.
Plus, Stothert beat Suttle head-to-head in South Omaha, an area that was crucial to his victory margin four years ago.
“Nothing is ever certain in politics, but this is likely a harbinger of things to come,” said Chris Peterson, campaign manager for GOP candidate Dan Welch, who finished fifth in the primary.
But perhaps not. Suttle faced a similar scenario in 2009 and wound up the winner.
Four years ago, Suttle finished second in the primary to former Mayor Hal Daub. Daub and a third candidate, Republican Jim Vokal, combined for 63 percent of the vote. That left Suttle in a deep hole.
Six weeks later, however, Suttle beat Daub by decisively winning the battle for about 30,000 voters who had skipped the primary but showed up for the general election.
Unlike 2009, Suttle now is an incumbent with a widely known record that was controversial enough to prompt a recall election. He also doesn't get the benefit of competing against Daub, a polarizing figure who carried negative baggage into the race four years ago.
Stothert has her own detractors, and drew sharp criticism from rival GOP candidates in recent months. But she still won a five-candidate primary that included a well-funded sitting mayor.
Click each precinct to see detailed statistics
“I think you'd have to say Ms. Stothert has momentum,” said Paul Landow, who served as chief of staff to then-Mayor Mike Fahey and who now is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Suttle still can win, Landow said, but it will be difficult.
“There's a lot of votes and a lot of money out there against Mayor Suttle,” he said.
Peterson said he expects Suttle to make up ground.
“But the primary turnout demonstrates that there is an enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans, and six weeks is not a lot of time to turn that around,” he said.
The World-Herald looked at vote totals in each of the 171 voting precincts. To compare with past elections, when the precinct boundaries were different, the analysis reallocated previous results into the current precincts.
Tuesday's primary turnout, which was higher than in 2009, was driven heavily by the western part of the city.
City Council Districts 5, 6 and 7 — all west of 72nd Street — accounted for 57 percent of the vote. Four years earlier, the same areas provided just 50 percent in the primary.
The voter turnout rate hit 26 percent in the west; in the four eastern council districts it was 20 percent. In 2009, turnout was lower citywide, and there was little difference between east and west.
With so many more voters in the Republican-heavy west, GOP candidates Stothert, Welch and Dave Nabity together clobbered Democrat Suttle there by a 4-to-1 ratio.
Such a dramatic edge likely won't hold during the general election, when more Democrats will show up at the polls.
Tim Lonergan, one of two Republicans running for the City Council seat in northwest Omaha, said his campaign hopes to find more votes by reaching out to Democrats who stayed home during the primary. More Suttle supporters will show up for the general election, he said.
“When he (Suttle) kind of got spanked a little bit, they're going to say 'Uh-oh, we better turn out,'” he said.
The primary was much closer in the east, where Suttle was the top vote-getter. If his votes are combined with those of State Sen. Brad Ashford, an independent, the mayor would have nearly as many total votes in the east as the three Republicans.
Suttle's general election strategy has to start with winning Ashford's supporters — and not just a majority, but nearly all. Then he needs to turn out his base, particularly in the east but throughout the city.
Last week's primary drew about 10,000 fewer voters in the east than cast ballots in the 2009 general election. Based on past elections, Suttle might expect to get nearly all of those votes, if he can get them to the polls.
Even in the west, Suttle has a track record of adding thousands of votes between the primary and general election, although Daub still won that part of the city.
“Our job is to turn out voters who didn't participate in this (primary) election, for any reason,” said Gary DiSilvestro, Suttle's campaign manager. “There will be greater participation in the general.”
Of course, Stothert also stands to gain votes in the general election, in addition to consolidating support from Nabity and Welch primary voters. Daub did that in 2009, with most of his additional votes coming from west Omaha.
Stothert's challenge is twofold:
» Add to the west Omaha base. Turnout was so strong in west Omaha that Stothert and her fellow GOP candidates collected nearly 24,000 primary votes from that part of town. That's roughly as many votes as Daub won from the area in the 2009 general election, and as many west Omahans as voted for the recall. Stothert needs to find ways to go beyond that base of proven anti-Suttle voters.
» Find more votes in the east. Stothert and the two other GOP candidates collected about 7,500 more votes in their primary than Daub and Vokal won in 2009. But all of that increase was in west Omaha. While Stothert did well in some places east of 72nd Street, including South Omaha, a stronger showing in the east might deliver a knockout blow to Suttle.
Suttle's success in 2009 was largely due to holding his base in the predominantly Democratic east. He took 60 percent of the vote in South Omaha. But that area has soured on him, voting in favor of the recall in 2011 and picking Stothert last week.
“We won some precincts in places where Republicans haven't won anything in years,” said Ryan Horn, Stothert's campaign manager.
In one precinct southeast of 36th and Q Streets, Suttle's support dropped from 70 percent in the 2009 general election to 23 percent in last week's primary. Stothert got 37 percent.
“That's the most Democratic area in my district,” State Sen. Heath Mello said. “That is a shocking result. I don't know what to say.”
Mello said Suttle's tax increases might have hit particularly hard in the area due to the number of low-income, working households.
Ashford, who campaigned hard in South Omaha and collected 13 percent of that vote, said Suttle cannot count solely on higher turnout in that area to change the results. He said the area's many Catholic Democrats still could be drawn to Stothert, an anti-abortion candidate who voted against the gay rights ordinance.
“The election's going to be won or lost in South Omaha,” Ashford said.
Checklist for Jim Suttle moving forward
» Boost turnout among his supporters. He has potential allies, including west Omaha voters: nearly 16,000 people in the western three City Council districts backed him in 2009, and about 20,000 voted against the recall. But only 5,900 west Omahans voted for him in the primary.
» Minimize losses in areas that have been drifting away from him, such as South Omaha. If he loses a large slice of his Democratic base, he's in trouble.
» Win Brad Ashford supporters. Stothert wasn't their first choice — but neither was Suttle.
Checklist for Jean Stothert moving forward
» Find more west Omaha voters. Having three Republicans in Tuesday's primary boosted turnout from GOP-leaning western areas well above the 2009 primary, but Stothert has to do even better in the general election.
» Chip into Suttle's base. He's vulnerable in some places that backed him in 2009, as Stothert and her fellow Republicans proved in the primary. But, overall, the three GOP candidates didn't collect any more votes from the eastern part of the city than Hal Daub and Jim Vokal did in the 2009 primary.
» Reach out to Ashford supporters. Suttle needs their votes, but they obviously were seeking a change.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1114, email@example.com