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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Cornhusker Democrats ‘Feel the Bern’

OMAHA, Neb. (CN) - Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont cruised to an easy win on Saturday amid strong turnout for the third-ever Nebraska Democratic caucus.

Sanders won 57 percent of the vote to the 43 percent earned by his rival, Sec. Hillary Clinton.

"I thank the people of Nebraska for their strong support," Sanders said in a written statement. "The win in Nebraska coupled with a double-digit victory in Kansas tonight will put us on a path toward victory. We've got the momentum, the energy and the excitement that will take us all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia."

Most of Sander's support coming in the larger cities of Omaha and Lincoln, which also happen to have bigger student populations, Sanders still won 51 counties to Clinton's 38.

Two counties tied, while another two didn't register a single vote. As for the delegate count, Sanders tallied 14 for his portion of the votes, while Clinton was awarded 10.

The state has seen much heavier investment by national candidates after then-Sen. Barack Obama was swept to a big victory here in 2008 after he opened an office and held a rally in Omaha. P

resident Obama also won an electoral vote in the general election from the congressional district that covers Omaha. Nebraska, along with Maine, allows the possibility of splitting its electoral college delegation.

This year both leading Democratic candidates opened offices in Nebraska, Clinton with three and Sanders with two.

Since switching to the caucus style in 2004 and moving the date up from Nebraska's traditional May date, when both parties in fact still hold primary elections, the Nebraska Democratic Party has seen a surge of enthusiasm in what is a solidly red state.

Vince Powers, Chairman of the NDP, touts several benefits to holding the caucuses, including greater solidarity among Democrats, a bump in registration, with over 2000 new party registrations since February 1 in Douglas County alone, and a chance to build the party's brand.

"What it comes down to is that people are excited about Democratic politics right here in Nebraska," Powers told Courthouse News in a telephone interview. "People look at Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, then they look at the Republican candidates, and they say, 'my goodness, I'd rather be a Democrat.'"

Sanders thrilled a large overflow crowd during a visit to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus on Thursday, demonstrating a crucial part of his strategy to reach college-age voters and winning contests in Midwestern states where the Clinton brand carries less weight than it does in large metropolitan centers and the South.

"I was emotionally moved by Sen. Sanders' visit," said Vicki Wood, a librarian from Lincoln who was at Thursday's rally. "It was heartening to see so many young people engaged and excited about the political process and a candidate that speaks to their concerns. He's a kind, genuine person who cares about the future of our country and the people in it. I admire him for always taking the high road and not pandering or dumbing-down his message."

Wood added that while she will support whomever the Democratic Party nominates, she strongly prefers Sanders because of his focus on reining in Wall Street and corporate excesses.

"The issue that is most important to me is the massive disparity between the haves and the have-nots," said Samuel Segrist, a teacher from Lincoln who also supports Sanders. "I'm greatly concerned that the center cannot hold and that, if we do not find a way to transform our system into one which allows for great balance, things will fall apart."

Segrist seems to be among the majority of Democrats in the state who enjoy the person-to-person style of politics that caucusing requires.

"Just yesterday at the rally for Bernie I found out an old acquaintance lives down the street from me. We haven't seen each other in probably seven years, but we'll both be at the same precinct site. If it was a ballot primary, our paths might not have crossed. The caucus system generates political energy, which is a good thing," Segrist said.

Adrian Koesters, a first-time caucuser from Omaha, echoed this sentiment. "I definitely feel more engaged as a Democrat. I've always sort of envied the Iowa caucuses. There seems to be more personal contact and more information," she said.

Most of the Clinton-backers who were interviewed by Courthouse News on Saturday were very aware of the fact that this year represents the best chance in U.S. history to send a woman to the Oval Office.

"We could see something historic and I want to be a part of it," said Marlene Sedlacek, a retiree who was caucusing for the first time, at Burke High School in west Omaha.

"I love Bernie Sanders too," said Jill McDermott, another first-time caucuser. "But I'm more impressed with rolling up sleeves and getting things done. As a woman, for women's rights, Hillary Clinton is the best."

The divide between voters along age and racial lines was apparent in the Cornhusker state, as it has been across the country.

"I couldn't help but notice how the room was very much racially divided," said Bethany Widman, a 30-year-old who caucused at Nathan Hale Middle School in north Omaha. "There were some exceptions, but generally speaking it was young versus old and white versus black. That was kind of uncomfortable."

While there were reports of overflow crowds at many sites, including Monroe Middle School in the diverse Benson neighborhood of Omaha, where a third sub-caucus was forced to convene outside after both the gymnasium and cafeteria reached capacity, this year's caucus went off with many fewer issues than the 2008 edition.

Over 33,000 people voted on Saturday. A large number for this state, although still 5,200 less than caucused in 2008.

"I felt bad for the people who had children in tow," Widman said. "It took a little over two hours for the process to take place and I couldn't help thinking of all the things I could be using my time doing. If we're turning in a piece of paper with our vote on it at the end anyway, then why not just go and vote and get it done with? I would caucus again, but I have to admit, it is much more convenient to just go and vote."

Nebraskans will next go to the polls on May 10 for the state primaries. On that date Republicans will select their choice of presidential candidates, and both parties will vote on numerous statewide offices.

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