Libertarian ranks surge in Nebraska; Democrats lose ground
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The number of independents and Libertarians in Nebraska is still climbing while the Democratic Party continues to lose voters and Republican registrations stay relatively flat, according to new state voting data.
Even though it's dwarfed by the Republican and Democratic parties, the Libertarian Party of Nebraska saw another surge in its membership prior to Tuesday's statewide primary election. Party officials said the trend is driven by voter disgust with the two major parties, even though Nebraska remains a Republican stronghold.
Libertarian activists have built their coalition mostly from independents and young voters who don't align themselves with the two major parties, including many who are "fiscally conservative and socially accepting," said Matt Maly, the party's vice chairman.
Nebraska had 13,499 Libertarian voters earlier this month, compared to 7,414 in May 2016, according to the secretary of state's office. Maly said party officials hope that number could reach 20,000 within two years.
"People are fed up with the extremism on both sides," Maly said. "Most people fall somewhere in the middle, and that's who we represent."
The number of Republicans increased to 577,438 this month, up from 564,718 in 2016, but the GOP's percentage of registered voters has been flat. During that period, the number of Democrats fell more than 4,000 to 355,753.
The number of nonpartisan voters jumped from 233,355 to 252,970.
Maly said his party has focused on small, winnable races that are nonpartisan to help its candidates develop name recognition and experience. The party scored a high-profile victory in 2016 when state Sen. Laura Ebke, of Crete, left the state Republican Party and reregistered as a Libertarian, but her candidacy also illustrates some of the challenges Libertarians face.
Ebke is one of four Libertarian state lawmakers nationwide — the other three are in New Hampshire — and is running for re-election this year in a potentially pivotal race for the party.
She survived a primary challenge Tuesday from a Republican legislative candidate backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, but faces another Republican in November who received more votes in Tuesday's election. Because Nebraska legislative races are officially nonpartisan, the two top vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election regardless of their affiliation.
"If we can demonstrate that we can and do win races, it's going to bring in even more people," Maly said.
The Nebraska Democratic Party still has work to do to build its membership and won't come close to matching the number of Republican registrations anytime soon, said Chairwoman Jane Kleeb.
Kleeb said the party's membership is slipping for a variety of reasons, including younger Democratic voters who are leaving the state and an increase in those who don't want to associate with either party. Some potential Democrats are also turned off by the turmoil at the national level without considering how local candidates would represent their interests, she said.
But Kleeb said party officials are appealing to potential supporters, especially young people and communities of color who feel neglected. Those voting blocs could play a key role in the future not just in Omaha and Lincoln, but also communities such as Schuyler, Columbus and Grand Island because of their growing Latino communities, she said.
"Communities of color are telling us we've taken their votes for granted for too long," Kleeb said. "The Democratic Party has a lot of work to do to show we're standing with them."
Kleeb said local party officials recently received a $50,000 grant from the national party for a "block captain program" to promote Democratic ideals and candidates at the neighborhood level.
The Nebraska Republican Party has seen a slight uptick in its membership since 2010, but its share of total registered voters has remained flat. The party is unlikely to see huge growth in the future because it's already so dominant and Nebraska has relatively few unregistered voters, said Executive Director Kenny Zoeller.
Zoeller said his party makes a point of hosting conventions in all 93 counties to keep members engaged. Party activists recruit new members by pointing to the state's low unemployment rate and economic development projects that were launched under Republican leadership, he said.
"We're primarily focused on delivering our messages of smaller government, lower taxes and less intrusion by the government," Zoeller said.