Biden camp reaches out to Nebraska Dems as state considers denying president crucial vote

President Joe Biden’s campaign officials have been in private talks with Nebraska Democrats after Republicans in the state began pushing for changes that could close off one of the president’s clearest paths to reelection.

The campaign has declined to comment on that push, which would turn Nebraska into a winner-take-all state in presidential elections, as opposed to one that allocates a portion of its Electoral College votes based on results in individual congressional districts.

But the private outreach, confirmed by two people familiar with it and granted anonymity to speak freely, suggests that the Democratic Party — from the president on down — has begun to take more seriously the possibility of the legislation, known as LB 764, passing.

Former President Donald Trump and the state’s Republican governor, Jim Pillen, are encouraging state lawmakers to move legislation that would repeal Nebraska’s 1991 law that divides electors based both on who wins the state and how each candidate performs in its three congressional districts. Republican activists have targeted the law precisely because in recent cycles, including 2020, the Democratic presidential candidate won the Omaha-based 2nd District, giving them an additional Electoral College vote.

Conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk — who sparked a viral online pressure campaign in favor of LB 764 — is expected to appear in Omaha on Tuesday to rally for the bill’s passage. Kirk has encouraged his supporters to contact legislators to move it through committee.

“There’s a decent amount of momentum behind it, but there are only a handful of legislative days left so it’d take a herculean effort to make it happen logistically,” said Barry Rubin, a Nebraska-based lobbyist. “Pressure from national groups, along with the governor and others, in addition to the enormous impact of removing the ‘blue dot’ from Nebraska’s 2nd could certainly move this along.”

In elections past, Nebraska’s Electoral College votes were largely immaterial. But this cycle, Biden’s simplest path to reelection has long been seen as winning the old Democratic Blue Wall — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — and that Omaha-area district. Doing so would give Biden precisely the 270 electoral votes needed to win, even if he lost the remainder of the battleground states.

Some Biden officials have argued that Nebraska is not essential, noting that the president won Georgia, Arizona and Nevada in 2020. A victory in any of those, or flipping North Carolina, would give him a win provided he holds on to the Blue Wall. The Biden campaign declined to comment.

But some campaign aides and Democrats who obsess over the electoral map take seriously the challenges a change in Nebraska could pose. Both Arizona and Georgia, most Democratic strategists feel, appear far more difficult to win this time around, while Nevada always is won by razor-thin margins. North Carolina has been long circled by Biden’s advisers in Wilmington as the president’s one possible pickup. But the state has only gone Democratic once since 1976.

“When you look at the map, that one electoral vote really matters in combination with other things,” said Jim Messina, who steered Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. “The easiest pathway to victory has always been the three Midwestern states plus Nebraska. They’d have to find something else too.”

Inside Nebraska, lawmakers have been bearish on the possibility that LB 764 will actually pass, at least in the current legislative session which is set to end on April 18.

The bill, which was introduced over a year ago to little acclaim, does not have the “priority” status needed to be taken up by the full legislature. With just six working days left in the session — and two days to get a bill before the full legislature — sponsors downplayed the likelihood of getting it to Pillen’s desk.

“My staff and I are doing everything we can to seek options for getting this to the finish line. However, the harsh reality of a two-day time frame is limiting,” Republican state Sen. Loren Lippincott said in a statement to POLITICO. “I stand in support of this bill and will continue to fight for this in the Nebraska Legislature.”

Speaker John Arch, a Republican, emphasized that he cannot schedule a bill that is still in committee. But Republican state Sen. Julie Slama on Wednesday brought the winner-take-all legislation as an amendment to a bill that was already before the full floor. The vote for that amendment was ultimately unsuccessful, because a majority of the senators said that it was not relevant to the attached bill. Only eight senators voted to declare it relevant.

The issue is likely to come up again in the remaining days of the session. And the eleventh hour momentum behind LB 764 has given some Democrats anxiety. So too has the possibility that Pillen may call a special session to give the bill consideration once more before the election. But he and other boosters would still need to find the votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

State Sen. Mike McDonnell, a Democrat, announced on Wednesday that he was switching his party affiliation to Republican, adding to the Democrats’ heartburn over the possibility that he might support the bill. But in a text to POLITICO, he said he would not change his stance on LB 764.

“It does not change my position I am voting against changing the electoral vote structure in the state of Nebraska,” McDonnell told POLITICO.

It’s also not clear if all of Nebraska GOP senators back the effort. One Nebraska-based Republican strategist, granted anonymity to discuss private conversations, said they were told at least two Republican lawmakers do not support it right now. A third Republican legislator, the person continued, raised concerns that eliminating Omaha’s Electoral College relevance could hurt the GOP’s efforts to maintain the congressional district, where Republican Rep. Don Bacon is fending off a serious, well-financed Democratic challenger.

“Absent some extraordinary horse-trading,” the person continued, “this is unlikely to happen.”

Should LB 764 make it to the governor’s desk, it may not be the end of its consideration. Under the state’s constitution, if enough signatures are gathered, voters could call for the law to be put to a referendum. That would result in a vote on LB 764 being placed right on to the November ballot.

If the referendum were to pass in November, it may not be clear whether the law would apply to the 2024 results or not. Nebraska Republicans could argue that the law still applies to the 2024 results if the law went into effect ahead of the election’s certification in January 2025.

“It could be a legal nightmare of epic proportions,” said one Nebraska Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly.

The last-minute drama in Nebraska also led to immediate speculation about the only other state that splits its electoral votes. Maine is an almost mirror image of Nebraska: Solidly blue statewide, with one district — the 2nd — likely to vote for Trump in November.

Maine has a Democratic-controlled legislature and a Democratic governor, Janet Mills. It could, in theory, respond in kind if Nebraska Republicans were to change their Electoral College process, although the timing would be very difficult to pass it this year.

But most officials in the state were caught by surprise by the Nebraska news, and did not initially seem eager to even hypothetically follow the same path.

There’s “not even a suggestion,” of a similar move here, said one senior Democratic official, granted anonymity to speak candidly.

Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.


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