Blue wave or red tide? Nebraska party leaders, organizers say voter energy is high

November 4, 2018 GMT

Whether a blue wave crashes across the state Tuesday or slams into a red breakwater, the energy surrounding the 2018 midterm elections across the country has been felt in Nebraska.

Party leaders, field organizers and campaign volunteers — both Democrat and Republican alike — believe they have successfully harnessed the enthusiasm, helping Nebraska register more voters than ever before.

But the Cornhusker state’s politicos won’t know if the registration drives, campaign messaging and get-out-the-vote efforts will translate to victory at the ballot box until after 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Kenny Zoeller, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, knows history isn’t on the GOP’s side in this midterm cycle.

“Whenever a party takes the presidency, the natural trend is for the opposition party to gain seats everywhere,” Zoeller said. “We’re trying to swim upstream this year.”


The Nebraska Republican Party has broadened its youth outreach this year, leaning on its College Republican chapters on campuses across the state to jolt its electorate into action.

Republicans have also recruited young Nebraskans to get out the vote this year, expanding two Teen Age Republican chapters at the start of 2017 into 20 chapters heading into the general election, with 500 active members.

“What we’ve done is essentially used our youth resources to volunteer for our candidates knocking on a record number of doors this election cycle,” he said. “When we inject our conservative youth into our movement, it gives everyone energy.”

Bennett Bressman decided to volunteer for Gov. Pete Ricketts’ re-election campaign after hearing Zoeller speak to his University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science class last year.

In May, just before the primary election, Bressman was promoted to field director: “I’ve been lucky,” the political science major from Omaha said.

It’s his first official job, one with a desk, where he oversees two-dozen interns who conduct phone banking, neighborhood canvassing, yard sign supply-chain management and the distribution of campaign literature.

“We have a core nucleus of people who recruit their friends to work for us,” he said. “I haven’t had to pitch any classrooms — our interns just really want to work for the campaign. They think it’s really cool to be a part of something like this.”

The energy brought by the youth has helped drive the early vote in places across the state, Zoeller said.

The number of early votes in Legislative District 12, where incumbent Sen. Merv Riepe is trying to fend off a challenge from his predecessor, Steve Lathrop, for the midtown Omaha seat has grown nearly tenfold between May and November.

Only 240 early votes were cast by Republicans in the primary, Zoeller said, while 2,000 have been mailed in for the general election.


Early voting among Republicans is also up in the state’s most-populous county. In 2014, there were 10,000 early vote applications by Douglas County Republicans. That grew to 24,000 in 2016, Zoeller said, and has topped 26,000 this year.

“That has allowed us to be competitive in the early vote for the first time ever in this part of the state,” he said, and combined with coordinated efforts “from the village board of Utica to the governor’s office,” the Republicans hope to hold off a blue-tinged tide.

But Democrats say they are witnessing a fervor from their voters to match the uptick in Republican zeal.

Precious McKesson, constituency director for the Nebraska Democratic Party, said liberal and progressive voters are watching races in states such as Florida, Georgia and Texas and channeling it into efforts here.

“More people are getting engaged, more people want to know about the process,” said McKesson, adding she’s walked into bars, bowling alleys and barbershops to register voters: “Places where Democrats have not normally taken advantage of.”

McKesson has leveraged existing relationships with community groups to reverse the dwindling voter turnout in North Omaha, which after spiking in 2008 has fallen in each of the subsequent elections.

And she has organized events such as “Trick or Vote,” where volunteers have handed out cards listing Democratic candidates across the state at Halloween events where thousands of families have attended.

In the process, McKesson has earned the moniker of “Voter Girl,” which she said is a badge of honor.

Those voter slate cards are just part of a multi-pronged approach Nebraska’s Democrats have used across the state to generate excitement and inform voters, said Jane Kleeb, the party’s chair.

The party hired 550 volunteer “block captains” across the state to knock on doors, passing out voter guides tailored to each of Nebraska’s 93 counties and reminding their neighbors to vote.

Party organizers have also deployed technology to text reminders to voters who requested an early ballot to turn it in, to send voters to the polls, as well as provide resources like an election protection line, or to show voters their precinct site.

“The Nebraska Democratic Party is really catching up with modern times,” Kleeb said. “We’re using technology that voters are using to get them information, whether that’s our texting tools or digital ads.”

Unlike Zoeller, Kleeb said she hopes the history surrounding the midterm elections plays out once more, with Democrats getting elected to serve as a check on President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.

Kleeb added she hopes the enthusiasm at the federal and statewide level is bolstered by a strong push for local offices. There are 850 Democrats running for office across the state this year.

She said the Nebraska Democratic Party knows that it faces a deficit of 200,000 registered voters this year when compared with the GOP, but is confident Democrats can begin rebuilding a statewide party.

The state isn’t as red as outsiders may think, Kleeb said, and has done things “even blue states can’t do,” such as pass legislation allowing so-called Dreamers obtain licenses, halt the Keystone XL pipeline, and potentially expand Medicaid through a ballot initiative.

Kleeb said with some election wins, pundits may start painting Nebraska more purple.

“We know we are going to win elections this cycle, but we are planning for 2020 and 2024 already.”