updated 7/16/2008 5:11:22 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:11:22

“The sea of Nebraska” is what the first settlers coming west called the Platte River—not actually a single river, but a braid of streams that weaves a silver chain around sandbars and islands, flooding the level floor of the great plain—a mile wide, as the saying goes, and six inches deep. Nebraska was formed in one rush of settlement in the 1880s, when its population increased from 452,000 to 1,062,000; it increased less than that, to 1,578,000, in the next 100 years. In the 1880s Omaha became a major railroad center, Lincoln the state capital, and farming and food products the main businesses. And for about 100 years, Nebraska remained pretty much that way. This is not what its founders intended: They hoped Nebraska would develop a diversified farming, industrial and commercial economy like Ohio, Illinois, Missouri or Minnesota. But while the 1880s were a time of plentiful rain here, the 1890s were a decade of drought, and Nebraska stopped growing. Many rural counties and even Omaha lost population, and Nebraska exported people for 100 years: 48% of Nebraskans in 1890 were children; in 2000, only 26% were. For a long time the creative energies in the economy seem to have skipped over the Great Plains and moved far to the West.

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The sudden boom of the 1880s and the bust of the 1890s produced the most colorful—and atypical—politics of Nebraska’s history: The populist movement and William Jennings Bryan, the “silver tongued orator of the Platte.” Bryan was only 36 when he delivered his Cross of Gold speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention and was swept to the Democratic nomination. He was so radical that Democratic President Grover Cleveland wouldn’t support him, but he still won 47% of the popular vote in the first of three attempts at the presidency. Since Bryan’s time, Nebraska’s most notable politician has been George Norris, who led the House rebellion against Speaker Joseph Cannon in 1911, and in the 1930s championed the state’s unicameral, nonpartisan legislature (in which every bill gets a public hearing) and pushed through the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act (the first federal pro-union legislation) and the Tennessee Valley Authority. But most Nebraskans were repelled by the New Deal, which seemed to threaten their way of life. Although it often elects Democratic governors and senators, Nebraska over the past half-century has been the second-most Republican state in presidential elections.

Since 1990, Nebraska has been growing robustly for the first time in decades. Its population grew 12%, to 1,768,000 between 1990 and 2006, less than the national average but more than Nebraska has grown since the 1910s. The age tilt has changed too: Nebraska’s percentages of old people and children are now within 1% of the national average. The growth has not been even. In 68 of its 93 counties, population has declined since 2000. In tiny county seats stores are closing, across the plains farmhouses are shuttered up, small school buildings are half-empty. The acreage of irrigated land has been rising, but a state law passed in 2004 seems likely to reduce irrigation from wells. Groundwater irrigation may have peaked; after six years of drought groundwater was down 30 feet in fall 2006. Even so, farm incomes hit a record $4 billion in 2004, though they have declined since; in 2004, Nebraska exported $2.3 billion to foreign countries, including $88 million to China. The number of jobs rose 18% when the population rose 8%. For years Nebraska’s aging population was not producing enough young people to fill its jobs, and for the first time in a century there has been migration into the state. A hundred years ago, Czechs, Germans and Danes came to work the farms on the plains—Willa Cather tells the story—and factories in Omaha. Now Latinos have been coming from Texas and Mexico to work in meatpacking factories: The Hispanic percentage rose from 2% to 7% from 1990 to 2005, and in 2000, 8% of the state’s children were Hispanic. Hispanic percentages are highest in the counties around Lexington (30%), South Sioux City (29%), Scottsbluff (19%) and Grand Island (18%). Meanwhile, farm counties keep losing population; drought in 2002 caused ranchers to cull their herds, and drought in 2006 caused $342 million in agricultural losses. Demographically, Nebraska increasingly looks like a Rocky Mountain state, with population concentrated in two cities and several smaller factory towns, with relatively few people spread out over farmlands. Every fall Saturday when the 'Huskers (Nebraskans don’t say Cornhuskers) play in Lincoln, one out of every 25 Nebraskans is there.

Nebraska may be heavily Republican, but it is also a small enough community that attractive Democrats can win high office. The pattern has been this: A Republican governor raises taxes, a Democrat defeats him or her and then goes on to serve in the Senate. That is the template for the careers of Jim Exon, elected governor in 1970 and senator from 1978 to 1996; Bob Kerrey, elected governor in 1982 and senator from 1988 to 2000; and Ben Nelson, elected governor in 1990 and senator in 2000. But Republicans have grown stronger. Republican Chuck Hagel beat Nelson when Nelson first ran for the Senate in 1996. Governor Mike Johanns, elected in 1998, opposed tax increases; temporary increases in the sales, income and cigarette taxes were passed over his veto in 2002. But the old pattern did not hold. In 2002 Hagel and Johanns were reelected by 83%-15% and 69%-28% margins—even greater than George W. Bush’s 62%-33% margin here in 2000; Hagel then considered running for president and Johanns became Secretary of Agriculture. Johanns’s replacement, Dave Heineman, compiled a popular enough record that he was renominated over 3d District Congressman (and former ‘Huskers football coach) Tom Osborne by a 50%-44% margin and won the general election by a 73%-24% margin. That means Republicans will hold the governorship for 12 years, the longest such stretch since the 1950s.

The last time a Democrat won one of Nebraska’s three congressional seats was in 1992 and Republicans hold all five downballot statewide offices. In 2004 George W. Bush carried the state 66%-33%, winning 92 of the state’s 93 counties (the exception, Thurston County, is an Indian reservation); he ran under 60% in only five counties, two of them the counties containing Omaha and Lincoln. But Nebraska’s Democrats are a game lot, and they include one of the country’s richest men, investor Warren Buffett, whose father was a Republican congressman in the 1940s and early 1950s; in this mostly flat state, they have a steep political hill to climb.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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