Party numbers could play big role in nonpartisan Legislature

Oct. 28, 2022, 5:30 a.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Watch a few campaign videos for Nebraska legislative candidates, and you might notice certain similarities: a flag waves, family photos are displayed, there’s a woodsy background. As music plays, the candidates speak earnestly to the camera.:

“We can roll back crime, if we do it together,” said Stu Dornan.

“As a kid, I saw my mom work two jobs to make ends meet. I understand the struggles that working families face,” said George Dungan.

“I’m running…not because of any personal agenda, but because of that strong sense of pride and obligation I have to keep rural Nebraska great,” said Chris Bruns.

The videos may seem pretty much the same. But depending on which candidates voters choose, the fate of major proposals in the next legislative session could be very different.

Just over half the Nebraska Legislature – 25 of 49 seats – is up for election this year. While the Legislature is officially nonpartisan, the split between Republicans and Democrats could have big consequences for the state.

Last session, there were 32 Republican senators, and 17 Democrats. It takes 33 votes to overcome a filibuster and vote on a bill. Major proposals, such as banning abortion and loosening gun laws, came within a few votes of moving forward.

This election will produce significant turnover. At least 15 senators will be new since those votes were taken last spring, and those closely fought, hot-button issues, along with school finance, property taxes, and and a host of others, will again be up for debate.

That’s where partisanship could play a role. Because Legislature is officially nonpartisan, candidates appear on the ballot without party designations, there are no majority or minority leaders, and committees aren’t organized along party lines.

But Todd Watson, political director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said the nonpartisan label masks an underlying reality.

“’Nonpartisan’ makes people all feel warm and fuzzy inside. It makes for a nice story. But if you look at the votes, how they’ve gone down, in the last, oh, probably a good 5, ten years, it’s been pretty partisan votes on a lot of issues,” Watson said.

The Nebraska Republican Party has endorsed returning to a partisan legislative system, which Nebraska had until 1937.

But Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said Democrats are against making such a change.

“We deeply believe in the nonpartisan nature of the Unicameral and think that the votes and legislation that come out of the Unicameral are representative of the bipartisan nature of the Unicameral,” Kleeb said.

Kleeb gave the example of cooperation between Republican Sen. Tom Brewer and Democratic Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks that helped end alcohol sales in Whiteclay, Nebraska to residents of the nearby, officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

On the other hand, another one of Brewer’s bills last session to allow carrying concealed guns without a permit provides an example of partisan voting behavior. It drew support to end a filibuster from 31 senators – 28 of them Republicans – while 15 of the 18 who opposed it or did not vote, which has the same effect as a ‘no’ vote, were Democrats.

Similarly, a proposal to ban abortion fell two votes short of overcoming a filibuster, with 30 Republicans and only one Democrat voting for it, while the remaining 16 Democrats voted against it or did not vote.

That splitting of votes on hot button issues reflects a polarization that has characterized the nation’s only nonpartisan Legislature for a more than a decade, according to Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist.

“Partisanship in the Legislature is not as high as it might be otherwise, if it were a more partisan system. But polarization is still there. And is growing over time. In fact between like 2000 and 2010, the Nebraska Legislature polarized more rapidly than any other state legislature. It wasn’t the most polarized. It wasn’t like California or New York or anything like that. But, it’s just sort of like, the parties moved apart more quickly,” Masket said.

Masket said term limits accelerated that trend, forcing out many veteran legislators beginning in 2006, and giving the parties a chance to recruit new, more partisan candidates. And, he said, developments in Nebraska mirror a national trend.

“Democrats are increasingly just a party representing more urban areas, (have) become a more liberal party, while the Republican Party has just become more conservative, and more likely to represent suburbs and rural areas,” he said.

That kind of geographic divergence is already assured by this year’s lineup of candidates. In fact, Democrats are running in just over half the legislative races in Nebraska this year, and no Democratic candidates are running in the entire state west of Lincoln. Kleeb said the national Democratic Party needs to do more to target rural voters. But for now, she said, the lack Democratic candidates outstate reflects voter registration trends.

“It is true that in the past we had more Democrats in our rural communities. You’re seeing that clearly in our state voter registration where Democrats outnumber Republicans in Douglas County and catching ground in Lancaster County, and then in the rest of the state, the Republicans clearly have a dominant force,” she said.

Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by about two percentage points in Omaha’s Douglas County. They are five points behind in Lincoln’s Lancaster County – the same as 10 years ago. In Nebraska’s other 91 counties, Republican voters outnumber Democrats by nearly 38 percentage points.

Meanwhile, 22% of the state’s voters are registered as nonpartisan.

Whether Nebraska voters cross party lines when they vote, and how “nonpartisan” the senators they elect actually behave, could have an important effect – not only on issues next session, but on the very idea of nonpartisanship going forward.