Although Nebraska Democrats lost their only congressional seat in this month's election, their gains in the nonpartisan Legislature have built a legislative bulwark that assures "we're not going to turn into Kansas," Democratic State Chairman Vince Powers said Tuesday.

"In an election cycle that could have been very difficult, Democrats gained three seats in the Legislature," he said.

"The governor is going to have to work with state senators."

And that should help protect Nebraskans from the kind of supply-side economic policies that led to big tax cuts in Kansas, creating huge budget gaps and an ongoing reduction in state programs and services, the outgoing Democratic chairman said.

Education funding has taken a particular hit in Kansas.

Democratic gains mean the 2017 Legislature will be composed of 15 Democrats, one independent and one Libertarian along with 32 senators who are Republicans.  

That arithmetic assures those Democrats and Sen. Ernie Chambers, the sole registered nonpartisan, could successfully block any legislative proposal by picking up the vote of a single Republican. It takes 33 votes to free a bill trapped by a filibuster.  

"It's all about checks and balances," Powers said. 

"I had been very concerned that we might have been down to nine or 10 Democrats in the Legislature at the end of my term as party chairman," Powers said during an interview in his Lincoln law office.

The legislative results represent a win for the state, he said, and they provide "a base to move forward" in 2018 when Powers said there is a strong potential for additional Democratic gains in the Legislature.

Powers will leave the party chairmanship on Dec. 17 when he will be succeeded by Jane Kleeb of Hastings, the founder and leader of Bold Nebraska.  

Powers was Democratic national committeeman for eight years before his four-year stint as state party chairman.

"It's my time to go," Powers said. 

Kleeb, he said, "brings significant strengths to the task, including an understanding of how to use social media."

While the Legislature in Nebraska is nonpartisan, Powers noted, election of state senators is a critical battleground for both parties.

Gov. Pete Ricketts helped defeat "three reasonable incumbent Republicans" who had opposed portions of his agenda, Powers said, replacing them with senators who appear to be more conservative Republicans.  

Although Sarpy County provided the Republican votes that ousted Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford of Omaha in the 2nd Congressional District, Democrats won two legislative races in that heavily Republican county, Powers noted.

"The Legislature was our focus," he said, along with providing support for Ashford in his own campaign.

"It's important that the governor has to work with state senators," Powers said, rather than dominating them.

"If you're a state senator in Nebraska, you are the most powerful state senator in America," he said. Only Nebraska has a one-house Legislature in which legislative power is shared by only 49 senators and bills can be passed with just 25 votes.

Powers gave credit to Democratic state executive director Hadley Richters for the party's success in this year's legislative races.

Looking ahead, Powers said 2018 will be the year to "drain the Capitol" in Lincoln from Republican rule after 20 years of GOP governors.

The results have included "$57 million in fines" paid to the federal government by the Department of Health and Human Services and mismanagement of the Department of Correctional Services, including "letting criminals out of prison early," Powers said.

Ricketts, who inherited those problems, plans to seek re-election in 2018 and Republican Sen. Deb Fischer is on course to be a candidate for a second term. Both are viewed as likely winners two years ahead of the election.

"I think it's fair to say after this year's presidential election that no one knows," Powers suggested. "Anyone who says so-and-so can't win or so-and-so is a shoo-in really doesn't know.

"What if (President-elect Donald) Trump's policies affect them negatively?" he asked.

"What if the Affordable Care Act goes away? What if Medicare is privatized? What if Social Security is harmed?"

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On Twitter @LJSDon.


Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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