Not too long ago, Nebraska seemed like a two-party state.
Despite a growing GOP registration advantage, red-state Nebraska wore a lot of Democratic blue.
In 1990, for example, Democrat Ben Nelson defeated an incumbent Republican for governor. Meanwhile, both of the state's U.S. senators and one of three House members were Democrats.
But a generation later, with Nelson last week announcing his retirement from the Senate, it's entirely possible that by the end of 2012 Democrats will find themselves shut out of Nebraska's top state and federal offices.
"We have a lot of rebuilding to do," said Tom Monaghan, an Omaha lawyer who was state party chairman in the late 1980s.
That's an understatement.
Republicans outnumbered Democrats by about 170,000 in statewide party registration after the 2010 election, up from about 75,000 in 1990.
Except for Nelson's Senate victories in 2000 and 2006, no Nebraska Democrat has won a race for governor, Senate or House since 1994. In the past three elections for governor, the Democratic candidate failed to hit 30 percent of the vote.
And with two months before the filing deadline, Democrats don't have a Senate candidate prepared to compete for Nelson's seat. National political analysts were quick last week to label Nebraska a likely pickup for Republicans in their quest to take control of the Senate.
"We all see the party spiraling downhill," said Jane Kleeb, a Democratic activist from Hastings, Neb.
Longtime Democrats say their electoral drought is partly because there has been too little attention in recent decades to recruiting strong candidates and strengthening the party. Democrats Bob Kerrey and Nelson, for example, often emphasized their independent streak as they won races for governor and senator.
"That's been a void," admitted former U.S. Rep. John Cavanaugh, an Omaha Democrat.
Anne Boyle, a former state party chairwoman, contrasted recent Democratic leaders with J.J. Exon, who dominated Nebraska politics for decades. Exon took conservative positions, she said, but didn't downplay his party affiliation in winning two terms as governor and three terms as senator.
"He didn't apologize for being a Democrat," said Boyle, who serves on the Nebraska Public Service Commission and is the wife of Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle, a former Omaha mayor.
Since Exon's heyday, Boyle said, Democrats have won some key races. But as a party, she said, there has been a "steady, imperceptible erosion."
There's good reason for that, said Mark Quandahl, a former Nebraska GOP chairman.
"I think it's pretty clear that Nebraskans have rejected the message and the method of governance that Democrats have attempted to foist on Nebraskans," Quandahl said.
It's true that Nelson and other Democrats used to be popular, he said, but that was before they "showed their true colors."
"Any cachet they may have had was squandered by their indecisive, ineffective, appeasing form of leadership," Quandahl said. "They said the right things. But then Nebraskans noticed that their actions were not in line with their words."
Democrats dismissed Quandahl's criticism as empty political rhetoric.
"I think that's preposterous," said Barry Rubin, a former executive director for Nebraska Democrats. He said Nebraska voters saw Exon and Kerrey, for instance, for what they were: populist, independent-minded leaders.
"Nebraskans appreciated that, respected that, and rewarded them with their votes," he said.
Despite the party's lagging fortunes in recent major elections, Rubin and others say Nebraska shouldn't be considered a one-party state.
Just three years ago, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama won one of Nebraska's five electoral votes by winning the 2nd Congressional District. Nebraska hadn't given a Democrat an electoral vote since 1964.
Meanwhile, both Omaha and Lincoln have Democratic mayors.
And Democrats say the right candidates still can win federal or state office, especially if Republicans give them an opening by running weak or ideologically polarizing candidates.
"To some extent, we have to rely on the Republicans to go to the extreme," Cavanaugh said. If Republicans nominate a candidate who is too far to the right, he said, a strong Democratic candidate can win by attracting independent and moderate GOP voters.
Exon, Kerrey and Nelson followed that playbook. None had held elective office before running for governor. They ran as pro-business, fiscally conservative candidates, sometimes against GOP incumbents who had raised taxes.
"The reasons we were successful is that we found better candidates and we worked harder," Monaghan said. "And often we worked smarter."
Can that formula be replicated?
"Sure," Monaghan said. "That's why I have faith that it's going to turn around."
But Monaghan acknowledged that it hasn't been easy to find strong candidates who can carry the party's messages and are willing to face the "uber-partisanship and personal attacks" of modern politics, especially at the national level.
And to some extent, he said, past Democratic wins have prompted Republicans to raise their own game, making it harder for the next generation of Democratic candidates to break through.
Even so, Rubin said the party has a number of young, smart office-holders already serving in the Legislature or local government. He said Democratic leaders need to help them prepare for future, higher-profile races and recruit more people to replace them, rather than hope for another Exon or Kerrey to emerge.
"That's where the time and money and energy needs to be spent right now," he said. "We don't need to wait for a knight in shining armor."
Democrats admit that they haven't capitalized on the Obama surge in 2008, which reflected both enthusiasm for Obama and an effective campaign organization.
"That was a major effort to identify voters and get them to the polls. That organizational potential still exists," Cavanaugh said. "There are a lot of voters that want to participate if they think their interests are going to be represented."
Kleeb said Nebraska Democrats need to be more vocal about their party affiliation and the policies they support. If they're not willing to stand up for what they believe, she said, voters won't support them either.
"Why be on a losing team?" she said.
Nebraskans need to be reminded that Democrats like Nelson helped create the state's program for providing health insurance for children, Kleeb said. Or that State Sen. Steve Lathrop, a Democrat, was the key lawmaker who negotiated a compromise on reforming labor laws.
"It's almost like (Democrats) are scared to celebrate their victories in a partisan way," she said. "There are appropriate times to do that."
Cavanaugh said he is confident that a strong Democrat would be able to win Nelson's seat this November against any of the announced GOP candidates. He doesn't know who that will be, however.
"It's not a lost cause," Cavanaugh said. "Democrats can be, and still are, competitive in this state. They just have to be a lot better than the Republican. But that's always been true."
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