Nebraska is now the first Republican state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty. Lawmakers there voted to abolish it last week, and on Wednesday they successfully overrode the Republican governor's veto to do so.

So how did this happen? While the legislature is technically nonpartisan, it is for all intents and purposes under GOP control. And Republicans in Nebraska are successfully arguing that getting rid of the death penalty is a fundamentally conservative position.

In the face of botched executions, a shortage of lethal injection drugs and decades-long appeal times (Nebraska hasn't executed someone on death row in 20 years), lawmakers like state Sen. Colby Coash say keeping people on death row is a classic case of big, ineffective government.

"Its something that's been on the books. It's not being implemented. It is costing our state money," Coash told Robin Young of Here & Now. "So we're approaching this from a good-government perspective and saying, 'Look, this is a program that's not working. We should just get rid of it.'"

Coash and other lawmakers in the unicameral legislature have apparently rallied enough support to avoid a veto by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who supports the death penalty. Ricketts just ordered a batch of drugs from India to carry out executions, announcing it in dramatic fashion last week, according to Paul Hammel, Lincoln bureau chief of the Omaha World-Herald.

While the legislature is nonpartisan, Coash said he was counting on support from members of the the Christian conservative wing of their party to vote their conscience to override the veto and abolish the death penalty.

"We're a very pro-life state," Coash said. "I consider myself pro-life, and I've always struggled with taking the life from anybody."

And outside of Nebraska, some conservatives are making a third political argument for abolishing the death penalty: It's too lenient of a punishment.

Montana state Rep. David Moore (R) championed a bill to a replace it with life in prison without parole.

“To me, personally, I couldn't imagine a worse fate than being locked up in prison for the rest of my life,” he said, according to the Huffington Post and Montana Television Network.

His proposal was defeated this year on  a 50-50 vote.

And larger public opinion in America is indeed moving away from the death penalty.  A Washington Post-ABC News poll in June 2014 found 60 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

But conservatives pushing to abolish it could have a tough sell among their own. That same poll found about eight in 10 Republicans -- 79 percent -- favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

Republicans do seem increasingly amenable to a larger conversation on criminal justice reform, an issue traditionally owned by Democrats. Alabama's Republican governor is calling for a $541 million tax package in part to offset overstuffed prisons, for instance. States like South Carolina and Georgia have also passed their own justice reform packages changing who gets sent to prison and for how long.

"When states in the Deep South, which have long had some of the country’s harshest penal systems, make significant sentencing and prison reforms, you know something has changed," The New York Times' editorial board wrote Monday.

But it's not clear yet if, in voting to abolish the death penalty, Nebraska Republicans are the start of a trend or just an anomaly.

Thirty-two states still have the death penalty on the books, though many are putting a moratorium on it while a divided Supreme Court considers whether certain drugs used in a gruesome, botched Oklahoma lethal injection last year represent cruel and unusual punishment. Nebraska could become the 19th state, including the District of Columbia, to abolish it.


A year ago, The Fix's Jamie Fuller pointed out that residents in the Texas town where all of the state's executions take place called death row "business as usual."

The number of states still carrying out the death penalty may be shrinking, and many Americans are questioning the morality — and the expense — of the system. In the places where the death penalty is "business as usual," the politics are far more complex and entrenched.

So, can conservatives opposed to the death penalty bring more people to their side? Nebraska is certainly a notable shift in the winds. But it's not clear whether other states will follow suit.