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The Rise, Fall And Rise Of The Nebraska Democratic Party

The Nebraska Democratic Party has a rich history in the modern era. It wasn’t so long ago when Nebraska was a genuine two party state. The current era of GOP dominance is a relatively recent development.

In the not so distant past, Nebraska had a surprisingly large number of Democratic governors and U.S. Senators. Between 1961 and 1999, four out of seven governors were Democrats. Democrats won 7 out of 10 gubernatorial elections between 1960 and 1994. Similarly, between 1976 and 2006, Democrats won an astonishing 9 out of 11 U.S. Senate races in Nebraska.

Nebraska voters elected Frank Morrison governor three times between 1960 and 1964. (Governors had two year terms at the time.) Jim Exon was elected governor in 1970 and 1974. Bob Kerrey upset incumbent Charley Thone in 1982. Ben Nelson narrowly defeated incumbent Kay Orr in 1990 and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1994.

Democrats were even more successful in U.S. Senate elections during that era. Ed Zorinsky prevailed in 1976 and 1982. Jim Exon parlayed his two terms as governor into successful U.S. Senate campaigns in 1978, 1984 and 1990. Bob Kerrey — after serving one term as governor — was elected to the Senate in 1988 and 1994. Similarly, Ben Nelson used his successful tenure as governor to get elected to the Senate in 2000 and 2006.

Ben Nelson’s overwhelming re-election in 2006 over Pete Ricketts was the last time a Democrat has won a statewide election. Nelson was also the last Democrat to be elected governor in his 1994 romp in a poor cycle for Democrats nationwide. What has changed since then?

I would submit that the recent lack of success of the Nebraska Democratic Party on the statewide level is due (in part) to the emergence of the right wing media and its dominance in rural areas. The right wing media is the mainstream media in small towns and rural areas. The right wing media provides the GOP with millions of dollars in free publicity every week.

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has (justifiably) attributed her defeat to the right wing media. As was reported by the NY Times: “Trump’s inflammatory appeals to division and fear were ubiquitous, in large part because of Fox News. She recounted walking into restaurants in every corner of Missouri and invariably seeing the channel airing footage of the Central American caravans Mr. Trump demonized. “ McCaskill contended: “It’s time we all quit dancing around what is now a state-owned news channel.”

The GOP uses the right wing media to inflame their supporters to vote against their economic interests on the basis of social issues like guns, immigration, abortion and gay marriage. When you combine the right wing media’s hate with divisive social issues, you get a toxic stew that hurts Democrats in rural areas.

That toxic stew is amplified by the GOP’s growing financial advantage in campaigns as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Bob Kerrey’s 2012 Senate campaign was under steady attack by right wing super PACs from its very inception and before he could even raise enough money to respond. This GOP financial advantage put Kerrey on the defensive from the very beginning and he had to play from behind.

Despite those headwinds, the Nebraska Democratic Party has had some significant successes and is in a position to mount a comeback. Democrats picked up 3 seats in the Unicameral in 2016 and 2 seats in 2018. The minimum wage petition passed in 2014 by a 59% to 41% margin. In addition, the Medicaid expansion passed this year by a 53% to 47% margin.

The success of the Medicaid petition can become a template for a Democratic comeback in state races. The Medicaid expansion garnered anywhere from 52% to 63% of the vote in 8 counties: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy, Burt, Thurston, Dakota, Dawes and Scottsbluff. The Medicaid expansion came close to majority support in Hall, Adams and Lincoln Counties. These are some of the most populous counties in Nebraska.

The Nebraska Democratic Party can become more competitive in state races but it will take a large commitment of time and money. George Harrison said it best in “Got My Mind Set On You”:

But it’s gonna take money
A whole lot of spending money
It’s gonna take plenty of money
To do it right, child

It’s gonna take time
A whole lot of precious time
It’s gonna take patience and time, um
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it
To do it right

Now let’s go out and do it! Let’s enjoy this victory and get back to work now. As Coretta Scott King said: “”Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it in every generation.”

I’m a trial lawyer, a Democratic activist and a sports fan.

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