When I say Nebraska, you say what? Cornhusker football? The wonderful writing of Willa Cather? The Sandhills? How about a ruby-red state about as inhospitable for Democrats as Mars is for humans?
The chapter on Nebraska from my Almanac of American Politics 1980 opens with this: “By almost every measurement – its preference in presidential elections, its congressional delegations over the years, its state politics – Nebraska has usually been the nation’s most Republican state.” So why is this? Some answers are to be found in a wonderful new book by Ross Benes, Rural Rebellion – How Nebraska Became A Republican Stronghold
Mostly a memoir, Benes recounts his youth in the rural hamlet of Brainard, a village of 420 and how his views on issues such as abortion and immigration were influenced by his surroundings and how they began to change after he went east to New York to seek his fame and fortune in the nation’s publishing mecca.
Like the other states of the Great Plains, Nebraska, has some proud Prairie populist roots. It gave us William Jennings Bryan, “the silver-tongued orator of the Platte,” and longtime progressive congressman and Senator George Norris – father of the Tennessee Valley Authority and champion of public power (Nebraska is the only state where electric utilities are public entities). Norris also pushed for the state legislature to be a nonpartisan unicameral (the only one in the nation) and the state is one of only two that awards its Electoral College votes by congressional district. But mostly, Nebraska is solidly Republican and moving ever harder rightward.
When I was growing up, Nebraska’s U.S. senators were Republicans Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska. These guys were some of the most vocal conservatives of their day and yet they voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both would likely face great difficulty getting elected now because they would be seen as not conservative enough for today’s Nebraska Republican voters.
As Benes tells us, hot button social issues like abortion often trump economic concerns as GOP candidates and office holders vie to out pro-life each other for who can be the most anti-choice. But interestingly, there is a geographic disconnect here as to how rural and urban residents view the issue. Benes writes that “In Brainard, what you see is people rejoicing whenever someone in town has a kid or a grandkid. You’re in a town where you need every physical body you can get to fight depopulation, and everyone in town will by default have a relationship with the new baby.” He notes that where he is from most people “view abortion in strictly moral terms while ignoring economic considerations.” Sadly, this mantra for protecting life of the unborn does not carry over to capital punishment. These voters are all-in for the death penalty. Democrats support choice so Democrats must be demonized at the ballot box. However, for all their pro-life ardor, Republicans don’t seem to care much about supporting stuff like health care and nutrition programs for kids after they are born.
Immigration is another issue that Benes uses to illustrate the political psyche of his state. Republicans are hell-bent on making life unbearable for illegals even though the meat and poultry processing plants could not function without this labor force. Republicans not deemed xenophobic enough get themselves primary challenges.
Benes relates how he was raised to “loathe people seeking handouts,” and that Democrats are seen as the party of “monetary incompetence” while Republicans are fiscally responsible. And yet in 2019, Nebraska’s farmers scarfed down almost $900 million in Market Facilitation Program payments to take the sting out of former President Trump’s trade war (remember all that winning!) with six of the state’s counties in the top 100 nationally in terms of payouts. With this kind of cash from the Treasury Department, you would think these Trump-lovers could buy some new hammers and sickles to use around the farm. If these hard-working farmers detest welfare so much, why don’t they give the money back? Crickets.
To hear Benes tell it, his neighbors never blamed the 2008 financial collapse on the big banks that pushed for deregulation, it was people in “populous coastal states” that lost “their sense of responsibility.” See, in rural Nebraska, tax cuts pushed by Republican presidents Reagan, Bush and Trump and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were put on a credit card and exploded the deficit are really nothing to see, so move along now.
In the chapter called “The Cornhusker Kickback,” named for the amendment to the Affordable Care Act that led to great heartburn for former Senator Ben Nelson, Benes takes the reader through his evolution on the issue of health care. He used to think that government health care programs were overreaching until he was beset by a series of serious medical conditions. But then Obamacare started to look pretty good. Benes admits that “the benefits I received from Obamacare made me reconsider other ways the government helped my life.”
These days, it’s not enough to be a loyal Republican in the Unicam, you have to be totally subservient to Governor Pete Ricketts and his agenda or the governor will help fund a primary opponent against you. Term limits combined with Ricketts-backed senators are making the Unicam more ideologically polarized, partisan and conservative while simultaneously leading to a more powerful executive branch in the state, Benes argues.
Recalling his college days at the University of Nebraska, Benes documents how Republicans target higher education for more and more budget cuts based on fallout from campus protests from the culture wars. And how Nebraska ranks 49th in the nation in the share of K-12 school funding coming from state government.
For me, the most interesting parts of this book are the discussions of how toxic the Democratic brand has become and how divided the Democrats are. Growing up in Bay State Democratic politics, I always got a thrill when looking at election results in the 1980s and seeing names like J.J. Exon, Ed Zorinsky, Bob Kerrey, and Ben Nelson with check marks next to them signifying winners of senatorial and gubernatorial races in Nebraska as Democrats. Pols like Jim Exon built up the party but today, Nebraska Democrats suffer from Thin Bench Syndrome like many rural states. As Benes notes, the current Democratic Party is one that “likes to get in its own way.”
And in many rural counties, making your views and political leanings known as a Democrat is a good way to incur the wrath of your Republican neighbors so best keep your mouth shut.
Benes does a good job of laying out the problems for Democrats but does not offer much in the way of solutions. To be fair, that task was not his charge.
As to the question of what Democrats in Nebraska have to do to become more competitive in state and federal elections, I turned to two trusted sources. John K. Hansen is president of Nebraska Farmers Union and managed the 1976 Nebraska presidential primary campaign of Senator Fred Harris the Oklahoma populist. Hansen sums things up this way:
We had a substantial number of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats that voted across partisan lines. They were the remnants of our large populist base that were socially conservative but politically progressive, and did not fit neatly into either political party.
Those independent swing voters have been replaced with voters that have more extreme views, are more polarized, and are much more hard-core partisan. Those truly independent swing voters are now few and far between.
So, as we become more extreme and partisan, with rural Nebraska depopulating and becoming older and more socially conservative, how does a statewide Democratic candidate appeal to those rural voters while also appealing to the growing younger urban more socially liberal voters?
Bill Armbrust is a farmer and cattle breeder from Elkhorn, just west of Omaha. He was active in the Young Republicans at University of Nebraska and a member of Farm Bureau before his deep frustrations led him to become unenrolled and then a Democrat where he worked in the Nelson and Kerrey campaigns in the 1990s. Armbrust ran for the state legislature and lost but remains intensely involved in local community activities, Farmers Union and on the Nebraska State Democratic Party, where he has been tasked with serving on a resolution committee as a bridging and buffering person to help break down urban rural misunderstanding within the Democratic Party.
Armbrust says the following:
By not targeting many rural issues such as the erosion of the sustainability of a cherished rural culture, the loss of jobs in the name of corporate efficiency and profits, hunger, poverty, drug abuse, and the lack of mental health care to name just a few that were well within the Democratic Party’s basic DNA, they made space for ultra conservative points of view to take hold. On the radios of tractors, trucks, and households, as well as the supportive role of conservative pundits on TV, rural citizens were slowly pulled into an understanding that the Republican Party was paying attention to their frustrations, and they had the answers, while the Democratic Party was out to destroy traditional rural family life, Christian faith, and purposely kill babies. There was no counter voice available to them and so it set in deep.
Getting out of this hole will be a slog for Democrats in his state, Armbrust asserts:
To reverse decades of unchallenged ultra conservative propaganda, the national party and the urban Democrats in Nebraska would need to value the political offices at stake, and take a holistic view of the state, and put money and effort into a long-term plan. The Nebraska voter fields are fertile for planting the Democratic message but these fields are currently being continuously cultivated by pundits of the right wing talk shows, and social media. It will take years of effort to begin seeing growth of voters who discount the spun facts and half lies, and begin looking at and helping to develop political platforms which truly benefit their lives.
Democrats have the medicine for resolving many rural American ills. But the Democratic Party must be open to hearing the causes and symptoms of rural problems, care enough to go to rural Nebraska, and provide the medicine and therapy, not for a vote, but because they care. Can urban Omaha and Lincoln do that? Can the national party support it and fund it? Without effort, the divide will only grow larger, particularly when both sides, urban and rural, begin to demonize one another.
Matt L. Barron is a rural political strategist and runs MLB Research Associates.