No Nebraska primary election ever topped 1968

Bobby Kennedy campaigning, May 10, 1968. (Photo by Lora Black, NET)
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May 15, 2018 - 6:45am

Fifty years ago, Nebraska briefly had a shining moment in the national political spotlight.

It was 1968. The year Nebraska mattered. 


KENNEDY IN TECUMSEH

When Bobby Kennedy's campaign train stopped in Tecumseh, Nebraska on May 10, 1968, Lora Black, later to become a host on NET Radio, was there. A senior at Johnson High School, she showed up with her reel-to-reel tape recorder and Kodak Brownie Camera to capture the speech on the Johnson County Courthouse square.

Listen to an excerpt of the speech HERE

Here are some of Lora's photos. 

 

 

(Photos by Lora Black)


McCARTHY IN OMAHA 

Christine Howells Reed of Connecticut took a year off from college to follow Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign across America, including getting a firsthand look at the Nebraska primary. She eventually would return to the state and teach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

 

McCarthy slips on the ice outside an Omaha home, as Reed, to his right, looks on.

 

Reed, left, and the cadre of campaigners known at the time as "McCarthy's Girls." (Photos courtesy Christine Reed)

They called it “The All-Star Primary.”

Early that year in the campaign for president, every big-name Democrat power-player in Nebraska ran to be a delegate at Nebraska’s state convention. Nearly all of them lined up early with President Lyndon Baines Johnson.  

That’s expected when a political party has an incumbent in the White House. 

Expect 1968 was no ordinary year. It was political chaos. 

In the midst of primary elections, President Johnson, politically crippled by the war in Vietnam, stunned the nation by dropping his campaign for a second term in office. Democrats heading for the national party convention, suddenly uncommitted, faced an unexpected competition for the presidential nomination.

Rushing to fill the void, candidates came to Nebraska, garnering the type of national interest from media and political leaders usually reserved for states with many more electoral votes at stake.

Nebraskans around at the time are most likely to recall the high-energy campaign of charismatic Robert Kennedy, whose brother John was assassinated while serving as president of the United States five years earlier. His whistle stop train trip across the state attracted massive crowds from Kimball to Omaha. The day before the primary RFK made visits to Creighton University and North Omaha that people talk about to this day.

Anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy of Wisconsin drew smaller crowds, but his well-organized campaign was one of the factors that lead Johnson to recognize the sitting president would likely be defeated. A swarm of volunteers, primarily college students from all over the country, descended on the state to knock on doors and staff phone banks to encourage voter turnout.

Missing was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who chose to sit out Nebraska and concentrate on later contests.

For the Republicans, Richard Nixon was the dominant force.  Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican (yes, there once was such an animal!) governor of New York was quickly loosing steam. Newcomer Ronald Reagan provided a voice for the most conservative wing of the the GOP.

Nixon had no trouble winning Nebraska and, ultimately, the election to become president.

Kennedy's victory was so decisive, beating McCarthy by nearly 30 percent of the vote, he seemed unstoppable heading into the California primary. The night of that contest Bobby Kennedy, like his brother before him, was assassinated.

In 2008 NET News captured to excitement of that campaign in the documentary ’68: The Year Nebraska Mattered. You can watch it here.

Below are some additional clips highlighting the parties and candidates of 1968.

THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY

The United States was reeling from social and political changes battering its institutions. Nebraska Democrats found it difficult to accommodate the strong differences between the philosophies of its three candidates: Bobby Kennedy, Senator Eugene McCarthy, and Vice President Hubert Humphry.  With the race wide open, rivals for the nomination set their sights on the convention delegates from the conservative state of Nebraska.


Robert Kennedy on the renewal of the American Spirit.

Eugene McCarthy on the important of young campaigners and voters.

Flyer for 1968 Nixon rally. (Courtesy John Prescott)

THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARY

 

Four years earlier the Republican Party had taken a beating in the presidential election. President Johnson, just a year after he rose to presidency after the assassination of John Kennedy, crushed the ultra-conservative Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. As the 1968 campaign unfolded, bitter divisions remained among conservatives and moderates, but there was a sense that the Democrats, badly weakened by Vietnam and a sense the U.S. was a country in trouble, found new focus and strength. Some in the party wanted an alternative to Richard Nixon. The 1968 Nebraska All-Star Primary gave them a chance to test their strength.  

 


After a huge defeat in 1964 presidential election, the Republicans regrouped.

During an Omaha visit, Richard Nixon assesses the Republican’s chance to win the White House.

A membership card for Wallace's American Independence Party.

THE RABBLE-ROUSER

 

There was a third party on Nebraska’s primary election ballot in 1968. George Wallace, the governor of Alabama who promoted the continued segregation of the races, created the American Independence Party and sought members (see left) in Nebraska in advance of the primary. Wallace found an audience among white voters fearful of Communism, racial violence, and government intrusion in their lives. Nebraska Governor Norbert Tiemann condemned Wallace as a racist. Violence erupted during one of his campaign rallies in Omaha, spilling over into black neighborhoods on the north side.


Speaking at a rally for his American Party, Wallace talks about the Communist Party in America.

The chair of the American Party on whether Wallace should be considered a serious candidate.

Discussion

 

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