Democrat Kara Eastman hopes the oft-predicted blue wave helps her defeat GOP Rep. Don Bacon in the Omaha area’s congressional race by exciting Democrats who might otherwise stay home.
Bacon hopes a slim Republican voter registration advantage in Nebraska’s 2nd District, fed by a large GOP edge in Sarpy County, secures him a second term in the House.
Both candidates’ chances in Tuesday’s election, however, may hinge on which trends swing the most voters: the national polarization pushing more voters to hew to party lines, or an increasing difference in party preferences among urban, suburban and rural voters.
Republican voter registrations in Nebraska have grown more than five times faster than Democrats since 2014, mainly because of GOP gains in rural areas, according to the latest state numbers. Democrats are gaining ground in urban areas, powered by registration increases in Omaha and Lincoln.
This increasing urban-rural divide in party politics, nationally and locally, could explain what’s happening in Nebraska, said Randall Adkins, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“What we’ve been seeing is a realignment of who’s in the Democratic and Republican Party,” he said. “The people who make up the coalitions are changing a bit.”
Rural voters in Nebraska and nationally are increasingly aligning and voting with the Republican Party, and urban voters are increasingly siding with the Democratic Party, Adkins said. The shift often leaves suburban voters as the most persuadable.
This makes it easier for Nebraska Republicans and harder for Nebraska Democrats to win statewide contests for governor or U.S. Senate. It also makes it easier for Democrats to compete in the races in or near cities.
Nebraska has fewer of the suburban battlegrounds common in other states. The main exception is Sarpy County, where Republicans maintain an advantage of more than 20,000 voters, though both parties grew there.
In Nebraska’s broader 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of Douglas County and western Sarpy County, the GOP registration advantage has eroded from more than 15,000 in 2014 to fewer than 11,000 today.
Statewide numbers show a Republican machine with few signs of slowing, according to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office.
Nebraska Republicans added 24,791 registered voters from 2014 to 2018. That stretched their statewide advantage over Democrats, the next closest party, to a number nearly the size of Lincoln, 221,915 people.
Democrats statewide added 4,405 voters over that same stretch, fewer than the 9,004 people Libertarians added to the voting rolls and far fewer than the state’s second fastest-growing group, nonpartisans, which added 22,604.
This doesn’t mean that nonpartisans or Libertarians are storming the gates of the state’s second-largest party. But nonpartisans, now 258,526 Nebraskans, are gaining ground on the state’s 362,240 Democrats. Libertarians have nearly tripled their tally since 2014 to 14,723 registered voters.
Republicans enjoy a category all their own, with 584,155 registered voters. Kenny Zoeller, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, says the party is growing with new outreach online and by knocking on doors.
He is particularly proud of social media outreach and advertising since 2017 and the ways that Republican candidates for statewide office help the party identify and register voters who might otherwise be missed.
“Nebraskans want low taxes, fiscal stewardship and they want conservative governance, and the Democratic Party does not offer that,” Zoeller said.
Democrats are growing in Nebraska’s cities and trying to fight their rural slide by reaching out to infrequent voters, former Democrats, centrist Republicans and nonpartisans, said Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Her party’s next step is to build a bench of local candidates in Nebraska’s rural areas that can earn the public’s trust as neighbors and eventually compete in races that cover broader geographic areas, she said.
As for Nebraska’s cities, Zoeller said he thinks the continued leftward drift of the national Democratic Party will help Republicans maintain or increase their advantage in the suburbs and help offset changes in urban areas.
Kleeb says her biggest concern is that Nebraska Republicans might try to curb Democratic momentum in Omaha’s 2nd Congressional District by carving up the city into separate congressional districts during redistricting in 2021.
“It is clear, the pockets of blue continue to grow and continue to trend in the Democratic favor,” Kleeb said. “You’ll start to see a lot of political games.”
The total number of Nebraskans now registered to vote is 1,219,644, a record.