Tuesday, May 30, 2006

2006 Outlook: The "D"

by Kyle Michaelis
Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal-Star covered the lay of the land in Nebraska's 1st and 3rd District Congressional races in Monday's paper. Of the 1st District race between Freshman Republican Jeff Fortenberry and former Democratic Lt. Governor Maxine Moul, Walton wrote:
The clear favorite at the beginning of this race is Fortenberry.

Moul’s path leads uphill. She doesn’t disagree with that assessment.

“But this is one race where the timing is right,” Moul suggests.

“No doubt,” Fortenberry acknowledges, “Republicans are in a headwind”....

“Any challenger has a tough task,” Moul says. “I know that.”

But, she says, “I think we will be as competitive as anyone ever has been.”

Meanwhile, in his weekly political round-up, Walton writes of the 3rd Congressinal District match-up:
Western and central Nebraska’s 3rd District is going to elect a young congressman for the first time in its history this November....

Next January, the congressman will either be Adrian Smith, who turns 36 this December, or Scott Kleeb, who will be 31.

Both are single, and that may be even more unusual than age. Has there ever been an unmarried congressman from Nebraska? Can’t think of one in modern times; can you?

Already, Kleeb and Smith have agreed to provide voters an opportunity to see them compete on the same stage.

They’ll meet for debates in Scottsbluff, North Platte and Grand Island. Kleeb would like to add debates in Chadron, McCook and Kearney.

The pair will first meet for a forum at Boys State in Lincoln on June 8.

Next Friday, Bob Kerrey will accompany Kleeb on a tour featuring appearances in Scottsbluff, North Platte and Kearney.

I haven't devoted as much attention to either of these races as I would like. But, the fact remains that, right now, there just isn't much to write about because these can't yet be said to be competitive races. Moul and Kleeb both bring a lot of great qualities to their respective Democratic tickets, but it's going to take more than just showing up to pose a significant threat to the entrenched Republican status quo that pervades Nebraska's political consciousness.

I'm not here to tell anyone what they want to hear. Though I sometimes get distracted by romantic ideals of prairie populism and wishful thinking about the fierce independence of the average Nebraska voter, there's no escaping the raw fact that a majority of Nebraskans identify with the Republican Party and do so for reasons that aren't going to change in the next five months. That alone is such a signficant handicap that - absent some real traction building over the next few months - neither Moul nor Kleeb are assured to even crack 40% in November's election.

Both are wonderful candidates - we are lucky to have them. But, let's be honest, until we see a willingness on the part of Nebraska voters to rethink the unquestioning Republicanism that has become their hallmark, truly embracing the chances of any of Nebraska's Democratic Congressional candidates is an invitation to heartbreak. I don't say that out of pity - nor with resentment or self-loathing. But, as Bruce Hornsby and Tupac understood, that's just the way it is.

To be honest, at this stage, electoral victory may be too much to expect in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Districts. Instead, in the hoped-for reelection of Sen. Ben Nelson and the simple recruiting of three legitimate, hard-working candidates for Nebraska's House seats, 2006's true measure will be its reestablishment of the Nebraska Democratic Party as a relevant political force.

In my opinion, the single most important development in the 2006 election cycle - hands down - is the series of television ads supporting Ben Nelson's 2006 reelection expressly on behalf of the Nebraska Democratic Party. So far, two such ads have run - the first on Nelson's 15 years of leadership in developing ethanol and the second on his role in rural America's battle against the scourge of meth.

They are good commercials - no doubt - emphasizing the multitude of ways Nelson's independence and experience have worked to this state's advantage. But, the fact that these ads state that they are "paid for by the Nebraska Democratic Party" is even more important than their actual content. Why? Because it's the first testament to the fact that the Nebraska Democratic Party even exists in any substantive way that many Nebraska voters have seen in a long, long time.

In what can only be seen as a show of confidence and strength on his part, Nelson's willingness to newly align himself with the Democratic label - even as he spurns it with many of his votes - is the clearest opportunity in years for Nebraska Dems to awaken from their partially self-imposed political exile.

For 2006 to be a success, it must be a year of rebranding and rebirth. Nelson's reelection is, of course, the most essential component to either effort, with his popularity and his style of leadership opening doors in the minds of voters for a new idea (for better and worse) of what it means to be a Nebraska Democrat.

From there - from the standpoint of what is in the best long-term interests of the party - I would contend that our Congressional candidates' willingness to run proudly and openly as Democrats is far more important than their achieving independent victory at the ballot box. The odds are against them either way, but this year has the potential to be the start of something remarkable if the candidates will follow Nelson's lead by no longer running away from the Democratic label and by instead demonstrating by their independence and ingenuity that they can still stand for Democratic principles without being consumed by the negative stigmas that have so long defined the label for Nebraska voters.

Mind you, that's not a call for martyrdom - it's a recognition that there is no escaping the "D" by your name on a partisan ballot. It will either remain a liability - and a crushing one at that - or what that "D" means must begin a transformation. Although candidates can not and should not forsake the values that make the Democratic Party great, they must responsibly reconcile and relate their private beliefs and policy choices with those of the citizens whose support they seek.

National trends will not be enough in 2006 - at least, not in Nebraska. Our down-ballot candidates have only two choices: "D"-ceive or "D"-fine. Many have tried to convince voters the "D" stands for nothing - it's just a label. For such efforts, the party it represents has continued to crumble with nothing to show for it but the disdain of voters who "D"-test being so manipulated.

No, the opportunity is now here to take a different approach - to take that "D" and make of it what they will. To actually win such a campaign might take an enormous investment of resources - likely requiring advertising that our Congressional candidates will not be able to afford - but I sense that even scaled-back efforts along these lines will prove more rewarding than any of the existing alternatives.


Blogger Nick Bravo said...

Maybe democrats need to go back to classical liberalism?

Blogger elisabeth said...

Nebraska Dems should look to local filmmakers to produce their ads -- both less costly and more personal.

Blogger Nick Bravo said...

Nebraska needs to be shaken out of it's 1950's stupor. Film is an excellent way to do it. Are there any local filmmakers nights where they show the work of local filmmakers?

Blogger Ben Hamilton said...

I agree that it's important to hear that the Democratic Party of Nebraska paid for the ads. It does remind people that there is still a Democratic Party in the state instead of Nebraska just having those pesky liberals in the world World-Herald's "Public Pulse." Excellent Post!

Going back to classical liberalism I think is also a great idea. But it seems as long as those wedge issues are fully intombed into the minds of Nebraskans, Dems don't have a chance. We need to find a way to relocalize our elections.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like kos is reading your blog on a regular basis!
One question, though. Isn't it a legal requirement that the source of funds for a political ad is included in the ad? In this case the NDP would have to be mentioned.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


Yes, if the Nebraska Democratic Party paid for the ads, that needs to be stated under federal law. But these ads could have just as well been paid for by the "Committee to Reelect Sen. Ben Nelson", "Friends of Ben", "The One Nebraska Committee", or "Citizens Against Rubber-Stamp Representation."

The fact that these ads are instead openly paid for by the NDP is significant because it is such a public acceptance of the Democratic label by Nelson. Though not an embrace of the national parties' agenda, it shows a willingness on the part of Nelson to run openly as a Democrat in ways that he and others have gone out of their way to avoid in the past.

Needless to say, if Nebraska Democrats are ever to re-emerge as a true political force this is a positive first step - a political gambit that shows some actual interest in building a local Democratic Party that can carry-on after Nelson's distinguished service has come to an end.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then this is a great sign. I've been completely fed up with Democrats who run from the label (see Morrison in Montana).

Blogger Nick Bravo said...

From what I've seen of the other parties in Nebraska, primarily teh Greens and Libertarians it seems to me that they are both struggling to survive and indeed the Democrats may have the best chance of amassing a powerful force to topple the republican regime. Just curious, how do you all feel about the Greens and Libertarians?

Blogger elisabeth said...

There was one at Meadowlark Coffee for a while, but I think that's defunct. I myself run a film production company, No Coast Films. You should also check out The Nebraska Independent Film Project.


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