Nebraska's late-season presidential primary is facing new scrutiny after the state narrowly missed its chance to influence the Republican race before Donald Trump effectively won the party's nomination.
Even with Nebraska's spot near the end of the national primary process, it looked like the state might be contested this year, given the tumultuous Republican race that began with 17 candidates. However, a week before Nebraska's contest, Trump's landslide win in the Indiana primary effectively ended the race and Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich suspended their campaigns.
Cruz was set to visit Nebraska last week but canceled his plans. Trump held a campaign event Friday in Omaha.
Among Nebraska's neighbors, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Missouri all welcomed Republican candidates when the race was still contested, and candidates never really stop lavishing attention on Iowa, which begins the nominating process with its caucuses.
"This was one of the longest primaries in the history of our country, and Nebraska still didn't have a voice," said state Sen. John Murante, a Republican who has fought for an earlier presidential primary. "We had such excitement for the presidential race — and just when we had the opportunity to have our moment in the sun, the race ended."
Murante introduced a bill this year that would have scheduled future presidential primaries in early March, but the measure stalled in committee. He said he plans to introduce it again next year, now that people "have had a taste of what might have been."
Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Bud Synhorst said the party's central committee may discuss moving the primary at a meeting later this year. He declined to comment further until the committee takes action.
Lawmakers have traditionally opposed an earlier primary because it would force them to campaign during their legislative session. Moving just the presidential contest hasn't gained traction either because it could cost the state up to $2 million, said Secretary of State John Gale.
Gale said he believes Iowa and New Hampshire will eventually lose their first-in-the-nation status and that the first contests will rotate among regional clusters of states. Until then, he said, Nebraska may remain near the back of the line. After the Nebraska and West Virginia primaries Tuesday, only a handful of states remain, including South Dakota.
The last time the Republican nomination wasn't settled by the time Nebraska voted was 1968, when Richard Nixon faced several candidates, including Ronald Reagan.
"I think it's disappointing for a lot of people," Gale said. "Many Republicans were anticipating that Nebraska was going to be a player for the first time since 1968. This would have been an extraordinary year."
Murante's bill would have moved just the presidential race to an earlier date, while leaving all other primary races in May. Setting an earlier primary for legislative races would have given an unfair advantage to challengers, who could spend more time campaigning while incumbents are working at the Capitol during the session, he said.
Despite important local races, the end of the GOP's one-of-a-kind nomination fight takes much of the excitement out of this year's contest, said University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Paul Landow.
"It's like steam was building up in a building, and then all of a sudden someone opened a valve and let it all out," Landow said. "Now it's like, 'Who cares? Ho-hum.'"
Gale, a Republican, said he still expects "solid turnout" roughly on par with the last three presidential primaries, when roughly 25 percent of registered voters participated.
"I think Nebraskans are used to not being the center of attention, and they turn out well anyway," Gale said, noting races for the Legislature, Board of Regents and Public Service Commission.
Nebraska's Democratic presidential contest was settled on March 5. The state Democratic Party established an earlier caucus in 2008 to try to attract presidential candidates and energize its members. It seemed to work, as Bernie Sanders campaigned in Nebraska, along with former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton.
The campaigns also opened offices in Nebraska and ran television spots in the weeks before the event.
"Obviously the benefits were worth the time, money and effort for Nebraska, regardless of who wins the primary," said Nebraska Democratic Party Chairman Vince Powers, who came up with the idea.
Powers said he would prefer a primary to a caucus because primary turnouts tend to be larger, but Nebraska Democrats have no plans to return to the old system.
"I'm hoping that at some point the Republican leadership wises up and agrees to move their primary," Powers said. "Nebraska voters — Democrats and Republicans — deserve the opportunity to have presidential candidates seek their votes."