LINCOLN — The Nebraska congressional delegation is about to go all-Republican, the first time in 36 years that the state's federal offices will lack a single Democrat.
Gov. Dave Heineman on Wednesday joined his fellow Republicans near Memorial Stadium for a photo to mark the GOP sweep of both federal and statewide offices.
While clearly pleased, they weren't exactly spiking the ball.
“Now that we've achieved this great victory, in order to continue to win elections, we've got to continue to listen to the people of Nebraska,” Heineman said.
The governor chalked up the state party's successes to a combination of quality candidates and competitive primaries.
U.S. Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha downplayed the partisan makeup of the new delegation, saying it's more about teamwork on behalf of the state.
“As long as we all work together, that's what it's all about. Ben Nelson did a good job of that, working together, being part of a team,” Terry said. “That's what makes the Nebraska delegation strong. We hang together; we talk to each other.”
Here's how Republicans took over:
Republican State Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine beat Bob Kerrey to replace retiring Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat.
Nebraska's three GOP House members each won re-election. And Republican Sen. Mike Johanns was not up this election.
Nationally, Democrats did well Tuesday, retaining control of both the White House and the Senate, but, in Nebraska, the night belonged to Republicans.
When Fischer takes office in January, it will be the first time in more than four decades that Democrats will hold no federal or major statewide offices in Nebraska.
Edward Zorinsky's 1976 victory was the first time the state had sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1934. Then-Gov. J.J. Exon declared that “we have finally established Nebraska as a legitimate two-party state.”
Democrats continued to do well over the years, with Exon, Kerrey and Nelson notching Senate wins.
The party's high-water mark came in the early 1990s, when Democrats controlled both U.S. Senate seats, the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District and the offices of governor, state treasurer and state auditor.
So is this the nadir for Nebraska Democrats?
University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Paul Landow, who was chief of staff to former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, called the reversal striking.
“It's definitely been a long, hard fall,” Landow said. “That said, there is a future for the Nebraska Democratic Party.”
Landow said party fortunes are both cyclical and candidate-driven. He said party leaders need to devote themselves full time to recruiting top new candidates for the state's prominent offices. Democrats can look to up-and-coming state senators such as Steve Lathrop, Heath Mello and Jeremy Nordquist, or to Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen.
The incoming chairman of the Nebraska Democrats, Vince Powers, said it's clearly a blow not to have a U.S. senator who can bring in high-profile speakers for party dinners and to rally the grass roots.
Republicans hold a substantial advantage in party registration in the state. Powers said Democrats have struggled when Republicans are able to nationalize Nebraska races by talking up repeal of the health care law and the need for GOP control of the House and Senate.
He predicted that the health care law would become more popular over time and that success by Obama over the next few years could help Nebraska Democrats.
Still, Powers said, the party needs to work harder to put some races in the win column, which will require building its organization in the central and western parts of the state.
He said Democrats can build on what Kerrey accomplished this election, noting the phone contacts the campaign made with voters and the offices it opened in different parts of the state.
“While he could not get the results anyone liked, he did have a field operation and he did organize, and we'll work on building up from there,” Powers said.
He said Nebraskans will be watching what the Republicans do with their expanded reach.
“What are they doing other than winning elections? Are they governing? Are they ... helping Nebraska working families?”
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