OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Democrats in Nebraska, the only state in the past century that has split its electoral votes between presidential candidates from two different parties, are hoping to do so again if the GOP remains divided over presumptive nominee Donald Trump.
Vince Powers, the state's Democratic chairman, predicted Wednesday that Trump will dampen Republican turnout and drive away minority support in the 2nd Congressional District — a largely urban area that includes Omaha and its suburbs.
"Donald Trump is radioactive," Powers said. "He is a sexist and a racist. He praises tyrants. He criticizes our NATO allies. Every day since he's been declared the winner, I've had Republicans coming up to me, saying, 'I'm voting for the Democrat.'"
Although Americans cast their votes for president in November, the choice won't become official until the next month when the Electoral College convenes. Only Nebraska and Maine have rules in place to choose their electors based on congressional district results rather than award them all to the statewide winner.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the Omaha district while the rest of the state solidly backed Republican John McCain. It was the first time Nebraska has cast even a single electoral vote for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson won the state in his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964.
While Nebraska Democrats aren't predicting a statewide win for their eventual nominee, they think conditions are ripe to again pick off one electoral vote. And unlike in 2008, the 2nd District is currently represented by a Democrat — freshman Brad Ashford, the party's only member of Nebraska congressional delegation.
Statewide, nearly 40 percent of GOP voters in Nebraska's primary on Tuesday voted for some Republican other than Trump, even though he was the only candidate on the ballot who remains in the race.
Republicans say they're well aware how badly Democrats covet the Omaha-based electoral vote and will do everything they can to thwart a split. Some also acknowledge that Trump might make that harder.
"Trump is rough around the edges. He's bombastic. He has a lot of warts going into this," said Matt Butler, a partner in a political technology and phone-bank company and former state GOP finance chairman who is a reluctant Trump supporter. "But he's starting to send some signals that the reality show bit is soon going to come to a close. You're going to see him get more serious and get more focused on policy."
The Electoral College system was established by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by popular vote. Under the system, each state has a number of presidential electors equal to the number of its senators and representatives in Congress, and Washington, D.C., gets three. It takes 270 of the 538 electoral votes to get elected president.
West Virginia in 1916 was the last state before Nebraska to split its electoral votes between candidates of opposing parties, when seven of its then eight electors selected Republican Charles Hughes and one selected Democrat Woodrow Wilson, according to Dr. George Edwards III, a Texas A&M political science professor and an expert in the Electoral College.
In 2008, Obama's campaign was credited for the rare split after conducting an intensive ground effort in the 2nd District, identifying and registering new voters and targeting young, minority and occasional voters. The campaign also encouraged extensive early voting and spurred a large Election Day turnout.
The win has been a thorn in the side of Republicans, who have spent decades trying to reinstate a winner-take-all system for awarding the state's five electoral votes. They came close earlier this year but were thwarted by a filibuster just before it won final approval in the Legislature.
Butler dismissed the idea of Nebraska Republicans unhappy with Trump skipping the general election; he's certain they'll want a chance to reclaim Ashford's congressional seat and believes GOP challenger Don Bacon, who won easily Tuesday, will inspire them to vote.
Republicans down on a Trump presidency will come around as the November election nears, he said.
"As they start to contrast Donald Trump to what the alternative is, they'll ask themselves, 'What's relatively less terrible than those people?'" he said. "Well, it's Donald Trump."
Associated Press Correspondent Grant Schulte contributed to this story from Lincoln, Nebraska.