Under normal circumstances there would have been absolutely no reason to believe that a Democratic mayor would not have won re-election in Omaha. The demographics of Omaha have been changing in the favor of the Democrats for the last 20 years. The percentage of Democrat voter registrations has increased. The percentage of non-partisan registrations has increased. And, the percentage of Republican registrations has decreased. As of April 12, 2013, there were 251,888 registered voters in the City of Omaha proper. There were 104,709 Democrats, 56,500 non-partisans, 983 Libertarians and 89,444 Republicans. In other words 41.57% Democrats and only 35.5% Republicans, a difference of 15,265 in favor of the Democrats. Interestingly, this has occurred even with many West Omaha annexations over the years. Omaha is simply becoming a more urbane city following the examples of those larger metropolitan cities on the east and west coasts.
Given the ability of the Democratic Party to get out the vote in recent elections (Fahey, Suttle 2009 and the recall of 2011) there is no way that Jim Suttle should have lost re-election. But he did, and that was because of the emotional issues that had built up under his tenure--the SUV lease, 15% property tax increase, a new restaurant tax, a new occupation tax, secret raises, a seemingly arrogant attitude, etc., etc.). Suttle, because of those emotional issues, couldn't rally his base and angered West Omahans who in several recent elections took the election of a Republican mayor as a given and chose not to show up.
The emotional issue also worked in the election of Aimee Melton to District 7 Omaha City Council, although the emotions showed up in the primary where an inept, non-responsive, arrogant appointed Tom Mulligan took the blame for voting for the same things that brought Suttle down. In Mulligan's case he could only get 20.9% of the vote in the primary.
To a certain extent newly elected Councilman Pahls benefited from the same axiom. Although not technically an incumbent, Pahls only 4 months earlier ended his 8 year service as a state senator. He had done nothing during his tenure to raise emotional issues or appear out of step with his constituency. A new challenger simply couldn’t raise emotional reasons to not elect Pahls.
For the other City Council incumbents, Festersen, Gernandt, Jerram and Gray, there simply weren’t the one or two emotional issues that separated them from their council constituencies. Yes, with the exception of Festersen, they voted for the tax increases, but given the much greater Democrat demographics of their districts, there simply weren't the emotional issues to replace them. Nor were their opponents of sufficient quality and wherewithal to reach those voters.
In one council race, the challenger, Ed Truemper, worked as hard as anyone could. But his opponent provided no emotional issue to replace him. Pete Festersen, a likely future candidate for mayor himself, voted against the mayor's tax increases. He did virtually nothing to alienate himself from his voting constituents. Truemper never stood a chance--there was no emotional issue.
The Omaha Public School Board elections, on the other hand, were a classic example of the "throw-the-bums-out" mentality based on real and emotional issues. Rife with emotional issues, there are six new faces on the board. Justin Wayne, an incumbent who stirred the pot over the status quo, was re-elected but there was no emotional issue to replace him. Only Marian Fey and Sarah Brumfield survived the house-cleaning, both perhaps by virtue of the inability of their opponents to connect with voters and use the emotional issues to win.
This election was a Politics 101 lesson for both those candidates and those campaign managers who chose to ignore Rule No. 1: You do not win an election over an incumbent if you do not have an emotional issue as to why that incumbent needs to be replaced.
While it is important for both parties to recruit and challenge those running for re-election, even in so-called non-partisan elections, it would be wise to keep in mind Rule No. 1. The best opportunity to elect an individual to any office comes when that office is open, there is no incumbent running, or when there are real, substantial and emotional issues that connect with the voters.