Nebraska 3rd District
West of Grand Island, Nebraska is wheat and livestock country. For miles on end you can see nothing but rolling brown fields, sectioned off here and there by barbed wire fences, and in the distance, a grain elevator towering over a tiny town and its miniature railroad depot. The winds, rain and tornadoes that come suddenly out of the sky remind you that the original settlers likened this part of the country to an ocean and thought themselves in their wooden wagons almost as helpless as passengers at sea in a rowboat. Settlers passed through here on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, then set down roots in the 1880s. But the rain they hoped for fell too unreliably, and wheatlands gave way to pasture and open range. It is a beautiful but hard land, exacting much from its people, as the novels of western Nebraska’s Willa Cather make poignantly clear. Chimney Rock—a clay and sandstone spire that marked a good camping spot and offered reliable spring water for travelers and their animals—was the landmark that travelers on the Oregon Trail most frequently mentioned in their journals. This symbol of westward expansion now graces the Nebraska issue of the U.S. quarter. Dozens of small counties today have fewer people than they did in 1900. Severe droughts in recent years have seemed a kind of end point, as the grasslands turned dry and brown, reservoirs and aquifers began to run dry and ranchers sold off their thinning and sickening herds. But some economic life survives. In North Platte, Bailey Yard is the world’s largest railroad classification yard, covering 2,850 acres and handling 10,000 rail cars every 24 hours. The Union Pacific line from North Platte east to Gibbon is the busiest freight rail corridor in the world. Farther west on Interstate 80 is the town of Sidney, home of Cabela’s, the world’s largest mail order and Internet business for hunting, fishing and camping gear.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 3rd Congressional District of Nebraska has one-third of the state’s people, 85% of its acreage and exists in two time zones. At nearly 65,000 square miles, it is one of the largest congressional districts—bigger than the state of New York and with more counties. Except along the interstate and around Scottsbluff, the 3rd has been losing population for decades as beef production continues to drop, and several of the western ranching counties are among the poorest in the nation. The Census Bureau reported a loss of 23,000 residents in Nebraska’s rural population in the first eight years of this decade. Valley County is one of many fighting for economic survival, creating a “business coach” to assist local firms in selling on the Internet. Still, the 3rd is a major agricultural producer, with the highest total in U.S. farm subsidies, more farms than all but one other congressional district, and more cattle and calves than any other place in the nation. Geographically and politically, the 3rd District is where the Midwest becomes the West. For years people here welcomed farm subsidies even as they angrily opposed federal interference. Politically, it is heavily Republican and sometimes ornery: In 1992 Ross Perot got more votes here than Bill Clinton. The district voted 75% for George W. Bush in 2004 and 68% for John McCain in 2008.