Nebraska Republicans are expected to dominate as usual at the polls in November and retain their solid majority of the officially nonpartisan Legislature. They face a far tougher challenge flipping enough seats to push through a statewide abortion ban.
The U.S. 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.”
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Even with Republicans considered a lock to maintain a solid majority 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 harbor 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 body.
The ruling overturning Roe v. Wade enabled other conservative states to quickly outlaw most abortions, but the proposed 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. 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 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 areas, 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 this month 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 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 in vitro 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," Grubb said, "because it was the only vehicle they could rent within a reasonable price range.”
Complete coverage: Supreme Court ends Roe v. Wade. What's next for Nebraska?
Read our complete coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending nationwide abortion protections, and what it means in Nebraska.
Tuesday's rare special election in Nebraska is the country's first opportunity to "fight back at the ballot box," Democratic congressional candidate Patty Pansing Brooks said.
Abortions are still legal in Nebraska. But the latest ruling is expected to prompt a special session for the Legislature to consider banning abortions in the state.
Watch now: Ricketts said he'll work with speaker to call special session of Legislature to ban abortion
The governor would not predict when the session would be scheduled but indicated he'd rather call senators back than wait until the regular session begins in January.
"I didn't think it would take this long," said the 88-year-old Shirley Lang. "There have been people praying all over America to undo this because it is wrong."
Abortion rights proponents said abortion remains legal and accessible in Nebraska in the wake of Friday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that they will work to keep it that way.
See what anti-abortion and abortion-rights advocates in Nebraska say about Friday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving states the right to ban a…
Using projections that abortion would be banned in Nebraska and Iowa after Roe falls, experts estimate that the eastern half of Nebraska would see a markedly lower number of abortions.
Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed Kathleen Kauth of Omaha as Nebraska's newest state senator, succeeding the late Rich Pahls who died in April.
Older generations of Nebraska women lived through a time when the state banned abortion. Their memories offer a glimpse of what could be in store if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade.
Nebraskans who rely on in vitro fertilization to have children are concerned that legislation that would restrict abortion access will affect people seeking IVF.
Friday's ruling is expected to lead to abortion bans in roughly half the states.