"The sea of Nebraska" is what the first settlers coming west called the Platte River--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. Nebraska was formed in one rush of settlement in the 1880s, when its population increased from 452,000 to 1,062,000; it increased less than that, to 1,578,000, 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 100 years, Nebraska remained pretty much that way. This is not what its founders intended: They hoped Nebraska would develop a diversified farming, industrial and commercial economy like Ohio, Illinois, Missouri or Minnesota. But while the 1880s were a time of plentiful rain here, the 1890s were a decade of drought, and Nebraska 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 economy seem 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 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 legislature and pushed through 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 10%, to 1,747,000 between 1990 and 2004, less than the national average but more than Nebraska has grown since the 1910s. The growth has not been even. In 62 of its 93 counties population has declined. In tiny county seats stores are closing, across the plains farmhouses are shuttered up, small school buildings are half-empty. The acreage of irrigated land has been rising, but a state law passed in 2004 seems likely to reduce irrigation from wells; groundwater irrigation may have peaked out. At the same time metro Omaha and Lincoln grew smartly; so did the northeast corner of the state and the counties strung along the Platte River and I-80 from Omaha to North Platte. More than half the people in the state live in the Omaha and Lincoln metropolitan areas; only 6% of jobs in those areas are on farms. Omaha is the home base of the fast-growing ConAgra food combine, of the giant Peter Kiewit construction company and of mega-investor Warren Buffett, whose down-home wit complements his knack for picking winning stocks. The nearby Strategic Air Command base brought the world's most advanced phone system to the Omaha area 40-odd years ago; starting in the 1980s hotel chains, credit card companies and telemarketers set up operations, making this the world's leading telemarketing center. Nebraska ranks number one in combine manufacturing, with a big new plant in Grand Island; it is one of the leaders in meatpacking, with a big IBP plant across the Missouri River from Sioux City, Iowa; and there are 17 operational ethanol plants.
Nebraska's incomes and housing values shot up during the 1990s and its unemployment rate has been one of the lowest in the country. The number of jobs rose 18% when the population rose 8%. The problem is that Nebraska's aging population has not been 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 farms on the plains--Willa Cather tells the story--and factories in Omaha. Now Latinos have been coming from Texas and Mexico to work in meatpacking factories: The Hispanic percentage rose from 2% to 6% in the 1990s, and in 2000, 8% of the state's children were Hispanic. Hispanic percentages are highest in the counties around Lexington (25%), South Sioux City (23%), Scottsbluff (17%) and Grand Island (14%). The state Department of Economic Development sent out 20,000 invitations to Nebraska graduates in Colorado to attend a Nebraska Alumni Celebration in Denver, where they are told how plentiful jobs are and how inexpensive housing is in their home state. Meanwhile, farm counties keep losing population; the drought of summer 2002 caused ranchers to cull their herds, as eastern Nebraska farmers sent hay to the dry counties in the west. 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 fall Saturday 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 then goes on to serve in the Senate. That is the template for the careers of Jim 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 Nelson first ran for the Senate in 1996. Governor Mike Johanns, elected in 1998, opposed tax increases; temporary increases in the sales, income and cigarette taxes were passed over his veto in 2002. In 2002 Hagel and Johanns were reelected by 83%-15% and 69%-28% margins--even greater than George W. Bush's 62%-33% 2000 margin here; now Hagel is being mentioned as a candidate for president and Johanns has been appointed Secretary of Agriculture. The last time a Democrat has won one of Nebraska's three congressional seats was in 1992. Self-identified Republicans hold 32 of the 49 seats in Nebraska's technically nonpartisan unicameral Senate and Republicans hold all five downballot statewide offices. In 2004 George W. Bush carried the state 66%-33%, carrying 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 lot, and they include the country's richest man, investor Warren Buffett; in this mostly flat state, they have an awfully steep political hill to climb.