LINCOLN, Neb. – A new political map proposed by Nebraska Republicans wouldn't just make it harder for Democrats to win one of the state's three House seats — it would make it a little bit harder for Democrats to win the White House.
Nebraska is one of only two states that divides its Electoral College votes by congressional district, rather than a winner-take-all system. That allowed President Joe Biden to claim one of the state's five electoral votes last year, even as he lost Nebraska by 20 percentage points.
Now Republicans in Nebraska's legislature are proposing splitting up the 2nd Congressional District, the one Biden won, in their new map. The change would make the swingy district surrounding Omaha, the state's largest city, more Republican. It would also make it harder for a Democratic presidential candidate to win.
Winning the presidency has not come down to a single electoral vote since the earliest years of the United States. Still, every one of the nation’s 538 electoral votes is precious. That single Electoral College vote — sometimes dubbed the “blue dot” in the state's sea of red — has been enough to make Omaha a regular stop on the Democratic presidential campaign circuit.
The GOP map was approved in a party-line committee vote in Nebraska's legislature Thursday and will advance to the floor of the one-chamber legislature, which is officially nonpartisan, though controlled by Republicans. Democrats oppose the maps and the GOP does not have enough legislators to overcome a filibuster, making it likely the final maps will be some sort of compromise.
Critics say the current proposal could effectively undo the 1991 legislation backed by Democrats that split the state's Electoral College votes. Under the current system, the winner of each of the three districts gets one electoral vote. The two additional Electoral College votes the state gets, one for each of its senators, go to the overall winner of the state.
“There's no question that the Republicans would like to win there, and they're doing what they think is needed to do that," said former state Sen. Bob Krist, a Republican-turned-Democrat who worked with GOP lawmakers during the state's last redistricting a decade ago.
Republicans say they aren't trying to fiddle with the Electoral College. But they've made no secret of their displeasure at Nebraska's arrangement.
“The Democrats knew exactly what they were doing,” said Ryan Hamilton, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party. “They hid behind this noble, populist rhetoric, and it benefited them. The reality is, they want that electoral vote, and we want it too.”
Barack Obama visited — and won the 2nd District — in 2008. Hillary Clinton touched down in 2016 but didn't win. Joe Biden put staff in Omaha, visited and won the district last year, and the extra vote gave him another path to the 270 votes he needed to become president — if he hadn't been able to win the right number of other battleground states. It remains a politically competitive area, fairly evenly balanced between the two parties and represented in Congress by a Republican, Don Bacon.
The new map would slice off the western edge of Omaha and put it in the 1st Congressional District, which leans solidly Republican because most of it is rural farmland with several more conservative towns. Those voters would be replaced by the suburban and rural areas to the west that are starkly more Republican.
If Democrats lose their shot at the “blue dot" in Nebraska, it is possible they'll improve their chances of picking up another. The only other state that divides its electoral votes by congressional district is reliably Democratic Maine, whose vast, rural 2nd Congressional District was won by Trump last year.
On Thursday evening, Maine Democrats, who control the state legislature, released a proposal that would move the state capital of Augusta and a strongly Democratic town of Hallowell into the 2nd Congressional District. It could make the district slightly more Democratic, although both parties were still analyzing the plan.
Despite the partisan overtones, the biggest objections to the Republican Nebraska plans have come from Omaha residents and advocates who say the GOP should not be splitting up a city.
“When you see these proposals that divide communities, that divide counties, that’s going to raise a lot of red flags,” said Danielle Conrad of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska.
Notably, the Republican proposal leaves intact the African-American neighborhood of north Omaha, and a heavily Latino stretch of south Omaha. But Preston Love, president of Black Votes Matter, a group based in north Omaha, compared the Republican plan dividing the city to a concrete legacy of the disempowerment of African-Americans — the freeway running through north Omaha.
“This,” Love said of the proposal to split his city, “is a voter freeway.”
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the sponsor of the Republican proposal, said it wasn't trying to change the presidential election. The growth in Omaha and its suburbs simply requires the area to be spread over multiple congressional districts.
The GOP map “does not eliminate a blue dot, nor does it guarantee it,” Linehan said. “The blue dot depends more on the presidential candidates than the congressional map.”
At a legislative hearing on Thursday, Omaha residents complained about their city getting split up. Carmen Bunde, a west Omaha realtor whose home would move to the 1st Congressional District under the GOP plan, said she considers herself “a proud Omahan” who wants to remain in the 2nd District. Bunde said her sister lives in Wahoo, a small farming town in the 1st District about 30 miles from where she lives, and their lives are very different.
“We don’t have the same school district or legislative concerns,” Bunde said. “It doesn’t make sense for us to be lumped together. I’m a proud Omahan, and Omaha is where I live, play, worship and work.”
Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle contributed from Portland, Maine.