Nebraska and North Dakota were not always this reactionary

Nebraska State Capital

I have longstanding ties to the state of Nebraska. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is where I got my graduate degree and my first academic job was at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. Much like my home state of North Dakota, Nebraska has always been conservative in its politics but with a dash of progressive populism mixed in as well. Unfortunately, the last few years both States have taken a hard right turn. As an admirer of the Great Plains and a leftist this troubles me greatly and a big question I have had is why? In the case of Nebraska a recent piece in 538 takes a stab at answering that important question.

Ross Benes, previewing his book on the subject, argues that one of the main culprits is the nationalization of politics. He writes:

The effect of nationalization in Nebraska is evident in how politicians have changed their approaches on issues like immigration and education to better align with the national Republican Party’s agenda. Take how far to the right Nebraskan politicians have moved on immigration. In the late 1990s, former Republican Gov. Mike Johanns opposed a raid on meatpacking plants in Nebraska by Immigration and Naturalization Services, and in 2003, former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel cosponsored the DREAM Act, which sought to provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors. But Nebraska’s current governor, Pete Ricketts, has bitterly fought to prevent “Dreamers” from obtaining driver’s licenses, and the state attorney general has gone as far as to sue the federal government to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

This trend extends to lower levels of government, too, like the state legislature and city councils. Republican state lawmakers have also tried to eliminate prenatal care and repeal in-state tuition for immigrants, while giving local police the power to question the immigration status of anyone they suspect of living in the country illegally. A few towns have even passed ordinances that formally ban undocumented immigrants from renting property. All this is happening in a state that, until recently, settled a high number of refugees.

He also utilizes DW-Nominate scores to show how far right Nebraska’s congressional delegation has drifted over the past thirty years:

The nationalization story rings true for me and I think it is (at least partially) what also explains North Dakota’s hard shift right as well. Out of curiosity, looked at North Dakota’s Congressional delegations DW-Nominate scores and you can see a similar shift to the right as in Nebraska. Although North Dakota’s is a bit more recent:

Positive numbers mean the delegation is more conservative and negative scores mean the delegation is more liberal. For many years, North Dakota’s entire Congressional delegation was all Democrats (all three of them!). That is not the case anymore, obviously, and doesn’t look like it will happen again for quite some time. Not to oversell the progressive bonafides of North Dakota as the next chart will show:

This is the DW-Nominate score for the North Dakota House of Representatives (see here for data). Higher numbers indicate a more conservative house and that is what the North Dakota state government has been basically my whole life. When I was growing up the argument was that North Dakotan’s voted Democratic for their Congressional delegation so they could keep the flow of farm subsidies coming in but voted Republican at the local level because the population was fundamentally conservative. I am not sure how much truth there is in that bit of folk wisdom but to be sure both Nebraska and North Dakota have had a recent history of electing Democrats but those days may not be coming back anytime soon.

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