OMAHA, Neb. – Nebraska Republicans are expected to dominate as usual at the polls in November and retain control of the officially nonpartisan Legislature. They face a far tougher challenge flipping enough seats to push through a statewide abortion ban.
The Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion has injected a degree of uncertainty into elections, even in some of the nation's most reliably red states. Abortion opponents in Nebraska are hoping to avoid a repeat of what happened this summer in neighboring Kansas, where voters overwhelming rejected a ballot measure that would have paved the way for an abortion ban there.
“Whether we like it or not, Nebraska is now a destination state for abortion,” said David Zebolsky, chairman of Nebraskans Embracing Life. “We’re supporting strong pro-life legislative candidates in the November election to change that.”
Even with Republicans considered a lock to maintain control of Nebraska's unique one-chamber Legislature, they need to gain at least two seats to end the state's status as the nation's most unlikely harborage for abortion services. Under legislative rules, some measures — including an abortion ban — can be blocked by the minority if supporters don't get at least 33 votes in the 49-member Senate.
The Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade enabled other conservative states to quickly outlaw most abortions, but the Nebraska ban received only 31 votes — two short of the number needed to avoid a filibuster.
Nebraska Republicans' hopes to outlaw abortions were thwarted again weeks later, when Gov. Pete Ricketts opted not to call a special session to enact a ban because backers were, at that time, three votes short.
Such setbacks are odd given Nebraska’s history as a leader in abortion restrictions. It enacted the country’s first law banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed theory that a fetus at that point can feel pain.
The upcoming election could give supporters the votes they need for a ban, or it could leave Nebraska as a rare state where Republicans control nearly all aspects of government but allow abortions to continue.
Nebraska’s tug-of-war over abortion comes at a time when the issue has roiled politics across the country. Besides Kansas, voters in Kentucky will decide next month the fate of a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate the right to abortion in the state. The red state of Montana will have a “born alive” measure on the ballot there, requiring health care providers to take “all medically appropriate and reasonable actions to preserve the life” of an infant born alive, including after an attempted abortion. Doctors have warned that the measure would force them to prolong the suffering of infants born with fatal deformities.
And in Georgia, which could decide control of the U.S. Senate, abortion has taken an outsized role in the neck-and-neck race between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, former football star Herschel Walker. Walker, a staunch anti-abortion proponent, has been plagued by recent claims that he paid for a woman’s 2009 abortion and later fathered a child with her.
Republicans who have historically championed anti-abortion causes appeared to be caught flat-footed in the the wake of the judicial branch overturning Roe, a move that was unpopular with a majority of Americans according to polls taken ahead of the decision. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted after the ruling revealed a majority of Americans want Congress to pass a law guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide.
That polling has led Republican candidates who would normally tout their anti-abortion credentials to back away from the issue this election cycle. In Nebraska, some Republican candidates in and around Omaha and Lincoln, which are less conservative than the state’s more rural reaches, are tailoring their messages on abortion with that in mind. Conversely, Democrats who would normally avoid the issue of abortion so as not to rile voters in a conservative state are now putting the issue front-and-center of their campaigns.
President Joe Biden promised during a speech last week in Washington to push a bill that codifies Roe v. Wade if Democrats control enough seats in Congress to pass it.
Omaha state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, one of the most vocal opponents of a failed “trigger bill” backed by Republicans last session that would have outlawed nearly all abortions, has placed her support for abortion access at the top of her campaign website. She cited an ACLU-commissioned poll in March that showed Nebraskans opposed to a total abortion ban by a 20-point margin.
Her opponent, Christian Mirch, had until recently been just as vocal about his support for banning abortion. He has attended anti-abortion rallies and stated in the Nebraska Catholic Voter Guide his support for an abortion ban “from the moment of conception.” But he seems to have backpedaled on that stance in the wake of blowback from the the overturning of Roe.
“We’ve gotten away from that representative form of government in recent years,” he said. “We can’t be constituencies of one.”
Asked about polling that shows most Americans opposing the overturning of Roe, Mirch countered that “we haven’t done that polling in this district.”
Cavanaugh said Mirch has been knocking on doors in the district and telling some voters that he and Cavanaugh have essentially the same views on abortion. Mirch said he simply has assured voters that he would not do anything that would endanger invitro fertilization treatments.
Cavanaugh isn’t buying it.
“You don’t lie about your position unless you know it’s going to cost you votes," she said.
Of the 15 Nebraska lawmakers who voted to block the abortion ban bill, eight are facing reelection challenges or not running.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor John Hibbing said he expects Nebraska Republicans will pick up the seats they need to ban abortions, but he notes the Supreme Court ruling “has put pressure on Republicans that they haven't felt before.”
Since the ruling, Planned Parenthood clinics in Lincoln and Omaha — two of the three in Nebraska that provide abortion services — have seen an increase in the number of people from outside the state seeking them. Andi Curry Grubb, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Nebraska, said many of the women the clinics are seeing have few resources to allow them to travel hundreds of miles from their homes.
“I know we had one patient who drove a U-Haul from Texas to Nebraska to get to one of our clinics, because it was the only vehicle they could rent within a reasonable price range,” Grubb said. “You get that sense that the burden in on people who need access to care the most.”