Flashback Friday: The 1968 Nebraska Republican Primary

Most political headlines in late 1967 and early 1968 centered on the Democrats: Senator Eugene McCarthy’s surprise showing in the New Hampshire primary, President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the emergence of Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democrat standard bearer. Yet on the Republican side, Richard Nixon faced opponents too.

As the nation’s thoughts turned in 1967 towards the campaign year of 1968, the three obvious Republican candidates were Michigan Governor George Romney (father of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney), New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and former Vice President Richard Nixon. All set their sights on Nebraska as an important primary state to win. Governor Ronald Reagan of California was also on the ballot in Nebraska, but he did not visit the state and his grassroots campaign comprised three small offices, each run by solo supporters.

Nebraska had pioneered the method of giving voters full expression of their preference for president when it had passed its “all-star” primary system in 1948. Candidates had been listed with or without their consent, but by 1951 the state legislature prevented the listing of candidates without their consent.

Nebraska re-adopted its “all-star” primary in 1965 after Oregon and Wisconsin passed similar laws. Secretary of State Frank Marsh said he would be “more liberal than restrictive” in deciding which candidates to list. Marsh had “sole discretion” to choose those “generally advocated or recognized as candidates in national news media throughout the United States.” Marsh would then send telegrams to his chosen candidates, and those wishing to withdraw their names had to sign an affidavit stating, “I am not now nor do I intend to be a candidate for the office of President of the United States.” The second method to get on the primary ballot was via petitions from three separate congressional districts.

Nebraska voters began hearing of the importance of their primary beginning in late 1966, a year and a half before the voting. Nebraska would be the first agricultural or rural primary, and the efforts of candidates, as well as the results, would be noted by surrounding states. Party pros believed that “Nebraska could have one of only a handful of meaningful Republican Presidential preference primaries” due to the expected large number of favorite son candidacies, including Governor-elect Reagan of California, Senator-elect Percy or Senator Dirksen of Illinois, and Governors Rhodes of Ohio and Love of Colorado. In Nebraska, Senator Hruska and Governor Tiemann would be two obvious Republican favorite sons.

The entire essay appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.

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