GovernorDave Heineman (R)
SenatorsBen Nelson (D)
Mike Johanns (R)
When the first travelers on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s crossed the Missouri River, they found themselves in “the sea of Nebraska”—not actually a single river, but a braid of streams that weaves a silver chain around sandbars and islands, flooding the level floor of the great plain; a mile wide, as the saying goes, and six inches deep. The wagons on the Oregon Trail passed through, and Nebraska was largely settled in a single rush in the 1880s, when its population increased from 452,000 to 1 million. It increased less than that, to 1.6 million in the next 100 years. In the 1880s, Omaha became a major railroad center, Lincoln the state capital, and farming and food products the main businesses. And for about a century, Nebraska remained pretty much the same. This is not what its founders intended. They hoped that Nebraska would develop a diversified farming, industrial, and commercial economy like that found in Illinois, Missouri, or Ohio. But climate is hard to predict. Rains were plentiful in the 1880s, but the 1890s were years of drought, and Nebraska abruptly stopped growing. Many rural counties and even Omaha lost population, and Nebraska exported people for 100 years: 48% of Nebraskans in 1890 were children; in 2000, only 26% were. For a long time the creative energies in the American economy seemed to have skipped over the Great Plains and moved far to the west.
The sudden boom of the 1880s and the bust of the 1890s produced the most colorful—and atypical—politics of Nebraska’s history: the populist movement and William Jennings Bryan, the “silver-tongued orator of the Platte.” Bryan was only 36 when he delivered his Cross of Gold speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention and was swept to the Democratic nomination. He was so radical that Democratic President Grover Cleveland wouldn’t support him, but he still won 47% of the popular vote in the first of his three attempts at the presidency. Since Bryan’s time, Nebraska’s most notable politician has been George Norris, who led the House rebellion against Speaker Joseph Cannon in 1911 and in the 1930s championed the state’s unicameral, nonpartisan Legislature (in which every bill gets a public hearing where anyone can speak). In Washington, Norris sponsored the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act, the first federal pro-union legislation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. But most Nebraskans were repelled by the New Deal, which seemed to threaten their way of life. Although it often elects Democratic governors and senators, Nebraska over the past half-century has been the second-most Republican state in presidential elections.
Since 1990, Nebraska has been growing robustly for the first time in decades. Its population grew 12%, to 1.8 million between 1990 and 2007, less than the national average but more than Nebraska has grown since the 1910s. The age tilt has changed, too. Nebraska’s percentages of old people and children are now within 1% of the national average. The growth has not been even. In 68 of its 93 counties, population has declined since 2000. In tiny county seats, stores are closing, and across the Plains, farmhouses are shuttered and small school buildings are half-empty. The acreage of irrigated land has been rising, but ground water irrigation may have peaked during the drought years of 2000-07. Even so, farm incomes have been high, helped by increasing demand for corn because of federal ethanol subsidies, and Nebraska has been exporting more than $2 billion to foreign countries, much of it in food products.
For years, Nebraska’s aging population was not producing enough young people to fill its jobs, but for the first time in a century there has been migration into the state. A hundred years ago, Czechs, Germans, and Danes came to work the factories in Omaha and farms on the Plains—Willa Cather tells the story beautifully in her novels. Now, Hispanics have been coming from Texas and Mexico to work in meatpacking factories; they account for half of the state’s population increase. And their share of the population rose from 2% in 1990 to 7% in 2007. The population also no longer tilts toward the elderly: The biggest increases in age groups between 2000 and 2007 came in the under 5 and 18-24 categories (primarily Hispanics), as well as in the 45-64 group, (the Baby Boomers). Hispanic percentages are highest in the counties around Lexington (30%), South Sioux City (29%), Scottsbluff (19%), and Grand Island (18%). Meanwhile, farm counties keep losing population. Drought in 2002 caused ranchers to cull their herds, and another dry spell in 2006 caused $342 million in agricultural losses. Demographically, Nebraska increasingly looks like a Rocky Mountain state, with population concentrated in two cities and several smaller factory towns, with relatively few people spread out over farmlands. Every Saturday during the fall when the ’Huskers (Nebraskans don’t say Cornhuskers) play in Lincoln, one out of every 25 Nebraskans is there.
Nebraska may be heavily Republican, but it is also a small enough community that attractive Democrats can win high office. The pattern has been this: A Republican governor raises taxes, a Democrat defeats him or her, and that Democrat then goes on to serve in the U.S. Senate. This is the template for the careers of James Exon, elected governor in 1970 and senator from 1978 to 1996; Bob Kerrey, elected governor in 1982 and senator from 1988 to 2000; and Ben Nelson, elected governor in 1990 and senator in 2000. But Republicans have grown stronger. Republican Chuck Hagel beat Nelson when he first ran for the Senate in 1996. Former Gov. Mike Johanns, a Republican elected in 1998, opposed tax increases, some of which were passed over his veto, and was re-elected easily in 2002. After a stint as Agriculture secretary, Johanns returned home to be elected to the Senate by 58%-40% in 2008. His successor, Dave Heineman, compiled a popular enough record that in the 2006 primary he beat 3rd District Rep. (and former ’Huskers football coach) Tom Osborne by 50%-44% and won the general election 73%-24%. That gave the Republicans the governorship for 12 years, their longest such stretch since the 1950s.
The last time a Democrat won one of Nebraska’s three congressional seats was in 1992, and Republicans hold all five down-ballot statewide offices. In 2004, George W. Bush carried the state 66%-33%, winning 92 of the state’s 93 counties (the exception, Thurston County, is an Indian reservation). He ran under 60% in only five counties, two of them the counties containing Omaha and Lincoln. But Nebraska’s Democrats are a game bunch, and they came close to snatching the 2nd District House seat in 2008 from the incumbent, Republican Lee Terry, as a result of a burst of enthusiasm for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. The senator from Illinois competed successfully in the 2nd District for one of three electoral votes that Nebraska law awards on the basis of congressional districts. Two years earlier, Democrats nearly captured the 3rd District seat, thanks to an attractive young candidate, Scott Kleeb. Omaha Democrats can also count in their ranks one of the country’s two richest men, investor Warren Buffett, whose father was a Republican member of Congress in the 1940s and early 1950s when Warren was starting his business career as a newspaper carrier.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Over the past 50 years, Nebraska has voted more Republican in presidential elections than all but one other state—65% to Utah’s 66.5%. It was the last state Democratic President Bill Clinton visited in 1996, and the 2004 exit poll showed that no significant demographic group came close to going Democratic. But 2008 was different. Nebraska Democrats decided to stir up interest by choosing their delegates in a February 9 caucus rather than in the traditional May primary, which hasn’t had much significance since Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy contested it in 1968 and Frank Church won a surprise victory in 1976. As in other caucus states, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was enthusiastic and well organized, while Hillary Rodham Clinton’s was well nigh invisible. Obama carried the caucus vote 68%-32%, running up big margins in Lincoln and Omaha and receiving scattered support in the west (some counties out in the sparsely populated Sand Hills cast one vote). The difference that Obama’s organization made in the caucus setting can be gauged by the fact that his margin over Clinton in the admittedly inconsequential May primary was only 49%-47%.
The strength of the Obama organization was evident in the general election as well. Targeting the 2nd District, which includes all of Omaha’s Douglas County and most of its Sarpy County suburbs, Obama opened three offices and enlisted some 1,500 volunteers. Taking alarm, the campaign of GOP rival John McCain sent in Sarah Palin, his popular vice presidential pick. In the end, Obama carried the 2nd District by just 3,370 votes out of 277,809 cast, allowing him to capture one electoral vote. Given his large Electoral College margin, the vote ultimately didn’t matter. But if, in one scenario that seemed realistic earlier in the campaign, McCain had carried all the states that George W. Bush won in 2004 except Iowa, New Mexico, and Nevada, the 2nd District’s single electoral vote would have made the difference between a 270-268 win for Obama and a 269-269 tie. A tie would have sent the election to the House of Representatives, where, to be sure, Democrats ended up with majorities of most state delegations.
|111th Congress: 3 R|
Nebraska has had three congressional districts since the 1960 census. Redistricting in 2002 meant only marginal changes in the boundaries. Democrats were angered when traditionally Democratic Saline County was moved from the 1st to the 3rd District. No Democrat has been elected from a Nebraska district since 1992, but Democrats have put up a fight in at least one of the districts in each of the past three House elections.