Nebraska’s state legislature is unique. For one thing, unlike every other state, Nebraska’s legislature is unicameral, consisting of forty-nine senators in a single chamber.
More importantly, however, is that Nebraska’s legislature is non-partisan. When voters go to the polls, they won’t see the words “Democrat” or “Republican” next to the candidate’s names.
That nonpartisan spirit isn’t just a matter of ballot labels. Unlike everywhere else, there is no formal majority or minority caucus in Nebraska. While a majority of the state’s legislators are known to be registered Republicans, they aren’t organized on that basis, and there are no party whips demanding that members toe the line.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is a partisan Republican demanding loyalty over principles
Nebraska’s imperious Gov. Pete Ricketts, the silver-spoon multimillionaire son of the founder of financial-services giant TDAmeritrade, doesn’t like that independent streak.
Since narrowly winning a six-way Republican primary in 2014, Ricketts has made clear that he expects members of his party to follow his marching orders, or else.
In 2016, Ricketts used part of his substantial personal fortune to bankroll three of his loyalists challenging incumbent Republican legislators. He has also made a habit of publicly and harshly lashing out at legislators who don’t vote as he instructs them to.
The one-man-rule attitude of Ricketts has clashed with Nebraska’s culture of collegial and nonpartisan legislative governance.
One state senator, educator and former school board member named Laura Ebke, was tired of being attacked and threatened because of her disagreements with Ricketts. A dedicated small-government fiscal conservative, Ebke is even aligned with Ricketts on matters relating to the budget and cutting taxes. But a contentious battle over the death penalty, and other hot-button social issues, left her on the governor’s lengthy enemies list.
In 2016 Ebke, who had always identified as a libertarian Republican, dropped the “Republican” part and officially switched her voter registration to Libertarian.
Laura Ebke’s victories include ballot access and occupational licensing bill
Even after ditching the GOP, Ebke continued to have substantial legislative victories. A bill she introduced to save the Libertarian Party’s ballot access was passed into law unanimously. She was elected by her colleagues to chair the important Judiciary Committee, which would not have happened in a most hyper-partisan legislatures.
Ebke has also forged a bipartisan coalition behind LB299, her bill to reform Nebraska’s oppressive and expansive regime of occupational licensing requirements The bill was so well-received, that the head of the state’s liberal ACLU, and the head of the conservative free-market Platte Institute, wrote a joint op-ed endorsing it.
This would be an impressive record for any first-term incumbent, and Ebke combines it with a dedicated commitment to constituent services, holding dozens of town-hall forums in her district that are open to all voters.
But none of that matters to Ricketts, who demands absolute fealty.
Gov. Rickets has recruited an anti-gay Al Riskowski to oppose limited-government Laura Ebke
To oppose Ebke’s re-election bid in 2018, Ricketts has recruited and endorsed Al Riskowski, the longtime executive director of a state family alliance group, and who has spent his career lobbying for anti-gay laws.
Instead of campaigning for support from voters of the Lincoln-area 32nd District, Riskowski is running almost entirely on his status as the Governor’s anointed pick, including access to his pool of donors.
For voters interested in dollars-and-cents issues and smaller government, Riskowski is a weak pick.
Instead of a government that works for all Nebraskans, his entire worldview is built around excluding and denigrating people he doesn’t approve of. Without the money being showered on his campaign by a wealthy governor, Riskowski would not be a viable candidate, and most likely would not even be running.
For those supportive of the cause of liberty nationwide, the stakes are high. Ebke is the party’s highest-ranking elected official, and many see her re-election fight as a test case for the viability of Libertarian state legislators.
Re-electing Sen. Laura Ebke will send a positive example to Republican state legislators nation-wide
In statehouses around the nation, there are many ostensible Republicans who would happily switch parties if they thought they could be re-elected. It’s an important hurdle for Libertarians to show they can bring enough resources and volunteers to the table to re-elect their own officeholders.
But in Crete, Nebraska, national partisan trends and aspirations aren’t the concern of local voters. Instead, it’s a question of good governance versus cynical divisiveness, of checks and balances versus one-man-rule, and a tradition of nonpartisanship versus mindless red-team tribalism.
While national attention focuses on the House and Senate mid-terms, one of the most important elections in 2018 may be that of Laura Ebke, a humble state senator in rural Nebraska, taking a stand on principle for her state’s constitutional values.
(Photo of Laura Ebke from the Nebraska legislature.)