Friday, December 08, 2006

Democrats Must Find "Common Ground" With Nebraska Voters

by Kyle Michaelis
Looking to South Dakota model a good first step

Although a supporter of the nonpartisan ideal in Nebraska's Unicameral legislature, there's no doubt that this makes it difficult for the Democratic Party to establish an identity and an agenda that might force the people of Nebraska to reconsider their long-standing allegiance to the Republican Party.

Of course, individual Democratic politicians have found great success on their own merits and with their own message, but this has not translated into more Nebraskans registering as Democrats and uniting under the Democratic Party's banner. In fact, in the last decade, quite the opposite has been the case, with Republicans having now reached majority status in voter registration.

What can be done to end this backslide? Right now, a Democratic politician's strongest asset in this state is the ability to separate him or herself from the national Democratic Party. There may be no single issue on which such separation is absolutely essential, but - to win in Nebraska - establishing enough distance to pass for a credible independent voice is the threshold that must be met before a Democratic candidate even has a chance.

To be honest, this isn't all that peculiar. There are actually quite a few states in the old South and in the central United States where, at least to win statewide, Democrats must have an identity separate from their characterization nationally.

The problem for Nebraska is that state and local issues are usually those from which such an independent identity can be forged and the trust of hesitant voters won. Yet, without control of the governorship and with no recognized Democratic presence in state government, the Nebraska Democratic Party has a difficult task staking itself in the public consciousness in the manner that they must to succeed.

I may be overstating a little bit. Last month, assuming the victory of Steve Lathrop in District 12, Nebraska Democrats made an unofficial gain of three seats in the 49 member state legislature. So, clearly, good candidates who run good campaigns in a good Democratic climate can win, particularly at the more local levels. But, these victories - as satisfying and encouraging as they may be - aren't going to change the way Nebraskans think about the Democratic Party. Yet, to do anything about the registration disadvantage other than efforts at often fruitless outreach to the disenfranchised, this change in perception (if not conception) must be precisely the goal undertaken by the Nebraska Democratic Party.

While many voters may not naturally identify as Democrats for reasons of family tradition and some vague cultural differences, there is enormous potential in carving out an identity by which these same voters might consider themselves Nebraska Democrats. To accomplish that, the Nebraska Democratic Party need not compromise itself on hot button national issues to the point where it stands for nothing, but it must expand its interests and stake positions at the state and local level. Only then can new connections develop and a new idea be born.

How can this be accomplished? For an example, we need look no further than South Dakota, our friendly neighbor to the north, where all 89 of the Democratic Party's legislative candidates united around a statement of principles and goals called Common Ground. And, not only did every statehouse candidate rally around these ideas addressing "the Meat and Potato Issues that Affect South Dakota’s Families," but "Common Ground" was also endorsed by Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth and U.S. Senator Tim Johnson.

Now, in Nebraska politics, it would probably be impossible and would certainly be inadvisable to attach our candidates to a Democratic agenda in quite the same fashion. While candidates are typically the means by which a party is most logically defined in the minds of voters, the peculiarities of Nebraska nonpartisanship might demand that the Democratic Party take a more proactive role in expressly defining itself.

I suggest that drafting a Nebraska Common Ground of its own, taking a few cues from South Dakota and perhaps building on many of the themes on which David Hahn ran for Governor, might be the perfect first step in this process. From there, it would become a matter of getting these ideas to the people - informing them, motivating them, and even organizing them under the Democratic banner. If the politicians are off-limits, Nebraska Democrats must discover their strength and take action through the people.

I'll refrain from dissecting the South Dakota Democrats' Common Ground agenda in any detail (though discussion is welcome and encouraged in any comments). And, I don't mean to leave the impression that these ideas totally swept the state or that such strategy offers a cure-all to our woes. Actually, South Dakota Dems saw gains quite proportional to their Nebraska counterparts, gaining only one seat in the 70 member House but a whopping 5 seats in the 35 member Senate.

Still, the idea has potential in Nebraska - perhaps to do even more good than it did in South Dakota. Two possible avenues for turning the agenda that would result into action include using the initiative process to put individual Democratic reforms to the voters or even embarking on intensive lobbying efforts as Democrats, through the media, to our elected representatives (of both parties).

At this late hour, I will even put forward the possibilty of the Democratic Party hiring a lobbyist to push for its agenda and serve as its voice at the state and local level. Part spokesman, part politician, it would be great to have someone in the halls of the capitol very publicly working on "the meat and potato issues that affect Nebraska families."

The People's Lobbyist has a nice ring to it, wouldn't ya' say?

Give it some thought. Tell me what you think. Ideas are easy. Talk is cheap (especially about registering/re-registering voters). It's action that's hard. But, damn it, the Nebraska Democratic Party has to start somewhere. Consider this but one humble proposal to get us to that new beginning.

6 Comments:

Anonymous JFinNE said...

This is anecdotal and am not sure how it would play in other Ne. cities and towns, but in '04, my sister lived in Alliance. She got a list of all the registered Democrats in Alliance and except for her and the Episcopalian Priest, all the other names were Latino and were very hard to find on election day.

Our base needs to be expanded if indeed this is the case in Nebraska.

12/08/2006  
Anonymous Elisia Harvey said...

This is a timely post for me, Kyle, because I've been trying to figure out the following questions: What does it mean to be a Democrat on the local level (mainly city/town/county level)? What kind of policies do Democrats support on the local level that distinguish them from Republicans?

Without the national platforms/issues defining a person's stance, the only thing that seems to distinguish a candidate is the candidate himself/herself (as you point out). I realize many local offices are non-partisan (and rightly so) and other offices are partisan (unrightly so), but for the local offices that are rightly partisan, what distinguishes one party from the other?

Hope this makes sense; sorry if the questions sound naive. But I would appreciate any feedback anyone wants to give.

12/08/2006  
Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

Kyle, this post just rocked my world. Just thought I'd let you know.

12/08/2006  
Anonymous TedK said...

Great post. You have pointed out the primary problem for Democrats in this state. Until people have a reason to identify with Democrats and their positions, nothing will change. Unfortunately I believe that people will not change their mindset unless they, personally, are feeling pain (economic?). With the fiscal mismanagement on both the governmental and personal levels, this is coming soon.

12/08/2006  
Anonymous Jon Rehm said...

I'm all for the Peoples' Lobbyist. Perhaps he could even give Heineman "The Peoples' Elbow." Sorry to inject rasslin into a serious discussion but it was the first thing that came to mind.

I read over the SoDak platform. It's a good idea in theory but it doesn't really hit home on a practical level. I think we need to identify 3-4 issues that distinguish us from the GOP on a state level. I think one that really hits home is the issue of access to broadband. Hahn really pounded on that, but no one listened. I think it's a no-lose proposition for us. It's popular with rural voters, it's good for economic development and we can frame it in a populist way as the GOP being in the pocket of the phone companies against rural folks

12/08/2006  
Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Elisia-

I think your question makes perfect sense, but I can't give you a very good answer. At the local level, the distinctions between Ds and Rs really are quite exaggerated and undefined. I think even a lot of candidates would tell you the exact same thing. What differences do exist are probably most recognizable in their respective approaches to economic development.

What's funny is that traditional Republican "Laissez faire" economics really has given way to the idea that government shouldn't just stay out of business' business but should actually subsidize economic development.

While Democrats are open to the possibilities of Govt. taking such a role - hell, they started it - they've really become the more moderate - even perhaps conservative - party because they want to see such programs regulated and seem more likely to expect actual benefits for someone other than corporate shareholders.

When issues of discrimination and minority concern arise, one will also see some pretty big distinctions. With moderates in both parties, this difference is largely just one of priorities. But, on the extremes, there's a huge gap in even admitting when these problems exist, along with differences more moral in nature.

But, even here, partisan labels speak to little more than a tendency. Each candidate must speak for him or herself and be judged on his or her own merits. That's probably easier at the local level because, on the meat and potato issues there addresed, you can't help realizing how much more we have in common than not.

12/10/2006  

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