Nebraska’s Hidden Progressivism

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Demonstrators against the Keystone XL Pipeline listen to speakers in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

It’s no surprise that the blue wave never touched Nebraska. The Republicans’ dominance of Nebraska’s statewide elections gives the impression that the Cornhusker State is more conservative than any place in the United States. However, even though the state proclaims that it’s “honestly, not for everyone,” Nebraska is not a monolith.

Nebraska’s unique state legislature, long tradition of local grassroots activism, and a willingness to take level-headed approaches to initiatives at the polls show that although Democratic candidates routinely get crushed in statewide races, progressive issue-oriented campaigns are not always lost causes. People who are willing to work to advance certain issues minus the unrelenting rancor of contemporary partisan politics can get the job done.

Nebraskans have long-embraced measures that belie their conservative tendancies. It settles more refugees per capita than most states; is the only state whose electric utilities are all public entities; and took environmentalism seriously very early on. In 1872, Nebraska City was the first community in the country to celebrate Arbor Day.

As for its state legislature, there really is no place like Nebraska. In 1937, Nebraska did something truly radical and required the body to dispense with party labels. To this day it remains the only state to have a nonpartisan and a single-house lawmaking body. Locals refer to it as the “unicameral” or the “unicam” and all lawmakers are senators.

Most Nebraskans know their lawmakers’ party affiliations, but they don’t use these labels in speeches in the legislature, for example. The entire unicam votes on a slate of candidates to chair their 14 standing committees instead of having them appointed by party leaders. Since parties technically don't exist, neither do positions like majority leader.

The decision to create the unicameral could be seen as an exercise in fiscal responsibility. Having to fund only one house of just 49 state lawmakers reduced the costs required to run the legislature. Removing party labels from the ballot also has had a profound political effect on the unicam: the move allowed moderate and progressive candidates to make inroads in a red state. 

“I think it does benefit progressives and independents in Nebraska that we don't have partisan ballots,” says Megan Hunt, a progressive state senator out of Omaha. “It is a good thing to have our party affiliation off the ballot because then people really evaluate us on our positions on issues instead of our parties. I think there are more races on the ballot that should be nonpartisan in our state.”

The absence of party labels helps facilitate bipartisan alliances, which is what happened in 2015 when an unlikely coalition of conservative and progressive state senators came together to ban the death penalty. In recent years, the unicameral also passed a bill that allowed DACA youth to obtain driver’s licenses; approved a gas tax hike that funneled the funds to fix damaged roadsstopped voter ID proposals from gaining momentum; and pushed back on Republican Governor Pete Ricketts’s effort to cut funding for the state university system. A group of state senators also just launched a campaign to legalize medical marijuana even though the governor takes a more “Reefer Madness” approach

Some state senators paid the price for overriding Ricketts on the death penalty and DACA and were drummed out of office after being defeated by far-right candidates Ricketts helped bankroll. Nevertheless, in the past few years, leadership selections have become much more partisan. In 2017, a group of 27 senators voted as a block to get certain freshmen members elected to head committees. The new partisanship was driven by Governor Ricketts's demand that state lawmakers elect more “platform Republicans” to the nonpartisan body. The money spent on these races has also increased, with the bulk of it coming from partisan groups and Ricketts himself. 

Many state senators told me these changes injected more partisanship into the unicameral. Ricketts sidestepped the unicameral by helping to financing a ballot measure that brought the death penalty back to Nebraska. Last August, the state carried out its first execution in two decades.

What’s remarkable isn’t that the deep-pocketed Ricketts overcame some opposition; it’s that the he faced plenty of resistance to his moves in a state where Republicans have so much power. 

“It’s only because of the difference in the folks who are elected by that system, and the way that the legislature is organized, that Nebraska has a record of semi-progressive legislation,” says Drey Samuelson, a Nebraska native who has worked for several Great Plains Democrats, including Tim Johnson, Tom Daschle, and Bob Kerrey. “There is no analog of similar resistance to a Republican governor in another red state, believe me. And the difference is that the Nebraska election system elects moderates who want to make government work, rather than right-wing radicals who are happiest when it does little or nothing.”

The most discussed progressive initiative in Nebraska in recent years has been the protests against TransCanda’s Keystone XL, the proposed pipeline that would push crude oil from Canada to Nebraska. The major issue for state residents is that a leak from the pipeline could damage the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a massive fresh water source that sits under Nebraska and a few nearby states. 

Local activists pushed the pipeline into a legal quagmire. Nebraska landowners sued TransCanada over its use of eminent domain. And Nebraska farmers sold some land along the pipeline’s proposed route to the Ponca Tribe, adding another legal barrier for TransCanda. Nebraska activists have been opposing Keystone XL for nearly a decade now and challenges to the pipeline have snaked through Nebraska’s courts, the state Public Service Commission, and the governor’s office. The pipeline remains in limbo and recently a federal judge temporarily halted its construction over environmental concerns. 

The people protesting the pipeline in Nebraska belong to a politically diverse coalition of conservative farmers and ranchers, Native American tribes, and liberal environmentalists. Protests against the pipeline have ranged from community events like an anti-pipeline concert featuring Neil Young and Willie Nelson and a pumpkin-carving session near the governor’s mansion to stunts like planting corn and building a barn covered in solar panels along the pipeline’s route. College football fans even opposed the pipeline at a University of Nebraska game. When a TransCanada ad came on the big screen during a 2011 contest, the boos that filled the stadium stunned university officials. The school promptly ended its deal with TransCanada the following week. 

“One of the ways we had as much luck as we did with Keystone is we didn't frame it in political terms,” says Mary Pipher, a Nebraska author and environmental activist who helped organize protests against the pipeline. 

“We worked with Nebraska language and kept framing it in ways that were extremely non-ideological, like we had water festivals and pumpkin parties against the pipeline. We never used any progressive language,” she says. We didn't even use the word ‘environmentalist’ or ‘climate change.’ We talked about protecting Nebraska's heritage.”

Progressive changes in the heartland have also come courtesy of recent successful ballot initiatives. In November, Nebraskans approved Medicaid expansion and in 2014, the state voted to raise the minimum wage. These campaigns were successful even though Nebraskans continue to elect GOP officials who oppose expanding health care access and hiking wages. 

“If you ask people to vote for things that might be in their own interest, and you explain the issue to them in one paragraph on the ballot, they will vote for the thing that is good for them,” says Ari Kohen, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (who recently attracted national attention for his Facebook preferences). “But you can't ask them to give up their party affiliation.”

Yet voter registration trends paint a depressing picture for Nebraska Democrats. Since I was born in David City, Nebraska in 1989, the share of Democratic voters dropped about 12 percentage points to 30 percent and it continues to fall. Republican governors and members of Congress now expect landslide victories in Nebraska. Democrats win so few high-profile races in the state that Nebraska Public Service Commissioner Crystal Rhoades lets out a subdued laugh when she refers to herself as the “highest-ranking Democrat elected in the state of Nebraska.” The Democrats’ bench for the 2018 contests was so weak that the state’s Republican treasurer and attorney general ran unopposed

“From a political scientist’s perspective, that seems like malpractice,” Kohen says. “Democrats have a more difficult time raising money than the Republicans; that makes it very difficult to recruit someone to run statewide. Knowing the financial support will not be there in the same way it is for your opponent, you know you are running uphill, so why put yourself through a race like that that?”

The GOP juggernaut continues to flatten Democrats seeking statewide offices in Nebraska, so it’s important to not to get over-confident about recent progressive victories.  But the state legislature’s independence combined with residents’ environmental activism, and empathy for folks on the margins underscore Nebraskans’ long track record of backing progressive initiatives—just as long as they don't have to vote for a Democrat.

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