Nebraska Democratic Party keeps finding ways to shrink

February 13, 2024 3:00 am

The Nebraska Democratic Party’s signature donkey symbol decorated in LGBTQ pride colors during the 2023 Heartland Pride Parade. July 15, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The Nebraska Democratic Party under Chair Jane Kleeb keeps finding ways to shrink its already minority status.

Once a big-tent party that won elections by occupying slightly right-of-center to liberal policy positions, the Nebraska Democratic Party now comes across as demanding ideological purity. Most recently, the Douglas County Democratic Party cut ties with State Sen. Mike McDonnell over his faith-based opposition to abortion. Never mind his labor background and possible strong bid to become Omaha’s next mayor.

It’s not all that surprising. The state party drove lifelong Democrat and Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, the most respected prosecutor in Nebraska, into the arms of the GOP because of a disagreement over one controversial case. The party came off, intentionally or unintentionally, as part of the defund-the-police movement.

Then we have the decision by former Gov. and former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey to separate himself from the state party, including having his name removed from the annual major state party fundraiser. (Kerrey continues to raise campaign funds for individual Democrats, particularly State Sen. Tony Vargas, a 2nd Congressional District candidate.)

In a recent interview, Kerrey told me he believes that Kleeb “gets a failing grade.” Outside of the greater Omaha and Lincoln areas, Kerrey said, it is rare to find a mayor, city council member, school board member or legislator — all nonpartisan posts — with a D behind their names.

One problem under the Kleeb leadership has been identifying the Nebraska Democratic Party as the anti-Keystone XL Pipeline party. Without getting into the many pros and cons on the Keystone XL Pipeline, making opposition to it the party’s position in Nebraska is not great politics.

Kleeb made the choice of identifying with what many consider coastal environmental elites over Nebraska-based labor. For the construction trades that saw jobs in building the pipeline and rural communities that hoped for a temporary infusion of cash, the pipeline was seen as a plus.

I worry about climate change and getting away from fossil fuels. But the political reality in automobile-dependent Nebraska is that the preferred vehicles are Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado and Ram pickup trucks and not Teslas and Priuses.

Kerrey told me that Kleeb’s dual roles as state Democratic chair and founder of the anti-pipeline Bold Nebraska are “a conflict of interest. She should resign.”

The Nebraska Democratic Party seems to have forgotten how it dominated the Governor’s Mansion for the last quarter of the 20th century and the U.S. Senate seats from 1976 until 2012.  Democrats have not been competitive in a statewide race in more than a decade.

What did former U.S. Sens. Kerrey and Ben Nelson and the late U.S. Sens. Edward Zorinsky and J.J. Exon have in common?  All had a business background that allowed them to seek campaign contributions from Republican corporate executives and talk the language of the shopkeepers, restaurant owners and insurance agents along small-town main streets.

Also they all first held an executive office where they proved themselves fiscally responsible. Their Republican opponents tried and failed to portray them as “tax and spend liberals.” They had no problem picking fights with national Democrats or (pardon the phrase) “Lincoln Liberals.” Each occupied the center, knowing those on their left had nowhere else to go as they won votes from independents and, often, 20% of Republicans.

I could go on, but my purpose is not to rally Democrats. It is just that I believe in a competitive two-party system that gives Nebraskans legitimate choices beyond the Republican primary.

We have seen it happen in other red states, including with the governor of neighboring Kansas and in Kentucky. After all, the goal is good government, not political domination.

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C. David Kotok
C. David Kotok

C. David Kotok is the former chief political reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. He is a lifelong registered independent.