Democrats fight for relevance in red-state Nebraska

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Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

In this Nov. 4, 2016, photo, Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb is about to introduce Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in Omaha, Neb. Kleeb published a book in 2020 about how her party could return from relative irrelevance in rural America and once again win elections, but the last few months have shown just how difficult that task can be. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

OMAHA, Neb. – It's never been easy to be a Democrat in Nebraska, but somehow it keeps getting even harder.

The 29% of Nebraska voters registered as Democrats is the smallest in at least 50 years, and that’s only one indication of the party’s problems.

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Just in the last week, the party urged its U.S. Senate nominee to resign after he admitted to sending sexually offensive text messages to a campaign staffer and its nominee in a largely rural congressional district ditched the party so he could run on the “Legal Marijuana Now” ticket. That followed a recent Democratic nominee for governor endorsing the Republican in the state's sole competitive U.S. House district.

The local Republican Party chapter in Omaha put it bluntly in a recent tweet: “Nebraska Dems have a dumpster fire on their hands."

Or as former Nebraska Democratic Party executive director Paul Landow noted, “For a Democrat to win statewide office, something really crazy would have to happen.”

It wasn't always this way.

Although the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Nebraska was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, members of the party were once competitive. Democrat Bob Kerrey was elected governor and to the U.S. Senate in the 1980s and 1990s, and Ben Nelson served two terms as governor in the 1990s and was twice elected to the U.S. Senate. And in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama won in an Omaha-based congressional district, thus earning a single Electoral College vote under Nebraska's unusual system.

But more than a decade has passed since a Democrat won a statewide election, and Republican nominees now aren't even seriously challenged.

Even some Republicans bemoan the situation.

“It’s better to have competitive races, both in the primary and general elections,” said J.L. Spray, a GOP national committee member and former state party chairman. “The voters should have a choice.”

Democrats say their biggest problem is a lack of money, and they argue the national party is short-changing states like Nebraska in favor of states seen as more competitive in presidential politics.

Jane Kleeb, the state party chairwoman, noted that when Howard Dean was the Democratic Party's chairman, its national committee had a 50-state strategy that guaranteed at least $25,000 a month to every state party regardless of its size. That period of 2005 to 2009 coincided with Nelson's reelection to U.S. Senate and Obama's Electoral College win.

Later, Kleeb said the party reduced Nebraska’s monthly share to $2,500 a month before raising it again to $10,000. But by then, she said the party had ceded too much ground to Republicans and had grown disconnected from rural voters, who tend to turn out in greater proportions than those in Omaha and Lincoln.

“We’re having to rebuild relationships with voters who feel like the party has turned its backs on them,” said Kleeb, who published a book this year on how Democrats could win in rural America. “Rural voters used to see our faces and hear our voices, and those years are now gone.”

Kleeb said she’s focused on rebuilding the party and trying to recruit strong candidates even though many are reluctant to jump into races with long odds.

As the general election approaches, Democrats are facing a host of problems, starting with the effort to unseat Republican Sen. Ben Sasse.

The Democratic nominee, Chris Janicek, was always a long shot, but after a staffer revealed he had sent her text messages asking whether his campaign ought to spend money “getting her laid," the party asked him to quit. Janicek has refused to step down, and under state law, the party can’t force him off the ballot without his consent.

Unless a replacement is found there will be no Democrat listed in the 3rd Congressional District. Nominee Mark Elworth Jr. had been the nominee but opted to run as a marijuana party candidate.

In the typically competitive 2nd District, it's unclear whether it will damage Democrat Kara Eastman that the party's 2018 nominee for governor endorsed Republican incumbent Don Bacon.

Democrats who have won in Nebraska said they're surprised how dramatically the state's political climate has shifted.

When Kerrey, a decorated Navy SEAL, returned to Nebraska in 2012 to run for his old U.S. Senate seat, Republicans tagged him as an out-of-touch carpetbagger because he had been living in New York. Kerrey lost in a landslide to Republican Deb Fischer, a rancher and state senator.

“There was hardly any party when I ran in 2012,” Kerrey said. “You get out of Omaha and Lincoln, and finding an elected Democrat is like hunting for a unicorn.”

The problem, Kerrey said, is about ideology as much as it is about money and reflects a leftward move of the national Democratic Party.

“If your conclusions about social and economic policy are in the minority, then you’re going to be in the minority,” Kerrey said.

Even in the past, Democrats typically lost unless facing unpopular incumbents, said Kim Robak, a Democratic lieutenant governor under Nelson. Robak said Nelson was able to unseat then-Republican Gov. Kay Orr largely because Orr approved a tax package that some voters viewed as a tax increase.

“Since then, the Republicans have become a lot more careful,” she said.

Nebraska Democrats have fared somewhat better in local elections and the nonpartisan Legislature, but they’re still relegated to the minority.

Democrats thought they might have a winning candidate in Jane Raybould, a moderate Lincoln businesswoman and city councilwoman who ran for U.S. Senate in 2018. Raybould launched her campaign in the heat of President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, outlining a pro-trade agenda as farmers struggled financially.

Still, Fischer coasted to reelection with nearly 58% of the vote in a year when wins elsewhere enabled Democrats to take control of the House.

Raybould said raising money was difficult as the state party's donor base is so small and out-of-state donors consider any Nebraska race to be unwinnable. Equally hard was convincing voters to consider a Democrat.

“It really is challenging to run for statewide office as a Democrat," she said. “You’re already at a tremendous voter disadvantage. You’re already facing an uphill battle.”


This story has been updated to correct the first reference to the spelling of Bob Kerrey’s last name, from Kerry.


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