Tuesday, December 12, 2006

An Interview with Scott Kleeb

by Ryan Anderson
By: Ryan Anderson, NNN
First of all, do you have any reaction to Barry Rubin's announcement last night that he was leaving his post [as Executive Director] with the Nebraska Democratic Party?
I think Barry did great work out here, he and I worked together great, and at the end of a cycle you look for new opportunities and new challenges. I think that's all Barry's doing.
The Omaha World Herald quoted you after the election as saying that you could divide the campaign into two halves: the last month and the year or so that preceded that. What'd you mean by that?
The pace of a campaign picks up throughout the effort. When I started out in August 2005 it was a much slower pace, obviously, and it just slowly picked up steam until at the last month so much is happening so quick that the campaign really becomes a different thing... Now does that mean that both halves aren't equally important? No, they are. You have to lay the groundwork in the first half in order to make the second half as successful as it can be. The only way we were able to have 30 people a day coming in and out of our office to make phone calls that last month was because we cultivated that base, worked it, made sure it was going to be there. But that first half is all about building up support for those last few weeks.
Also in the last couple of weeks, the GOP and the Club for Growth threw a lot of attack ads your way. Which of those attacks do you think had the greatest impact on your campaign? Which ones stuck?
Probably a combination of all of them....They had big, heavy points against me, five different ads, the robo-call thing. Probably all of that was effective. But I think the one that hurt the most was the claim that was, on its face, the easiest claim to make, but the one that I actually think was the most wrong. Which was... not being from here.They talked about, you know, "went to school at Yale, raising money in San Francisco... Scott hasn't even lived here."
Which is a claim that is more specific to your candidacy, obviously. But it seems that a lot of the attacks that they threw at you, things like "he's gonna vote for Nancy Pelosi"... are claims that almost any Democrat running in Nebraska would be vulnerable to. How can Democrats in red districts effectively counter those claims?
Our campaign had been very careful at defining this as a race between Adrian Smith and Scott Kleeb. Not between a Republican and a Democrat. Now we were very successful –by talking about my beliefs, my values structure, why I'm doing this, who I am, all those things- in convincing some very rock-ribbed Republicans to say, "hey, I actually like this guy." But from the media standpoint, where it's all done in thirty second bites, you have to define it as between Scott Kleeb and Adrian Smith, not Democrat versus Republican. And you don't do that by going weak on who you are, you do that by saying "look, this is the choice: who do you want to represent you?" You point out his deficiencies, try to point out your strengths, and make the case why you're better. You know, that whole "message box" thing that you learn about [when you start a campaign].

Once we released our poll, the DCCC came in with $100,000, and the headline the day after the D-trip did that was "National Dems look to Third District Race". The next day, President Bush was on his way out here. The race nationalized in a way that got us a lot of attention that last week, but it made the story "the future of the house is increasingly dependent on this seat", which was not true. Anybody that follows politics closely knew that that wasn't true. But that's what folks in the media said, and I understand why they did it. They want to sell copy and they want to make it exciting and make it really happening...

It did increase turnout. Just to give you an indicator, we had figured out what our win number was... based on previous elections in previous years of off-year cycles, gubernatorial elections and all the ways of finding out what the turnout would be, what we would need to get to 50%+1, and we actually surpassed that number.
So, do you regret the DCCC getting involved? Do you think that ad was effective, or do you think that the cost you paid in nationalizing the race wasn't worth it?
No. We were getting hammered in the out districts very effectively because we didn't have the money to go up on TV in a way that we needed to in those out-markets. Out-markets being everything but the Lincoln market, for us.

By the way, we don't have a choice about where or at what levels the DCCC buys time....I couldn't have said, "don't do this". So when I'm answering the question, I'm answering the question: do I regret releasing the poll?

No, because we needed money, and we made a lot of money that last week. We were able to bump up our points, we were able to pay some bills that needed to be paid... You need to take some chances. And we took some chances by going up on TV as early as we did. There were points where we were really low, embarrassingly low. Less than a $1,000 with five weeks left. So we needed to find some ways to raise money.
When you announced your bid, were you met with skepticism by the Nebraska Democrat Party?
You know, when I entered this, I told some of my friends, colleagues and professors back at Yale that my goal was 40%. Our PVI [base] is 25, and if I could get 15 above that it'd be tremendous. And I knew I could do that, I knew we could do that, if I worked hard and worked aggressively.

But when you believe in something yourself, you need to convince others. They (the NDP), could see the numbers like anybody else, in fact they know better than the folks back in Washington that the numbers out there are ugly. Our last poll still showed President Bush very popular. Very popular.

You have to prove yourself on the campaign, especially in a district like ours. One thing that corporations do is offer matching grants. They say: if you can raise the money, we'll match it. That puts some sense of ownership on the part of that organization. Same principle when it comes to campaigns. Parties should be skeptical. They shouldn't just willy-nilly waste money.

But it would have been nice to have found a way to move that forward so we could have had two months of excited campaign at the end. That was the challenge, to find some way to do that.
This district was only one of a number of very red districts that discussed as possible flips, and the Democrats didn't pick up many of them. Do you think those results reinforced skepticism about going into areas like Nebraska's third? Or do you think that the party has become more interested in this fifty state strategy?
I hope the latter. I hope that it's gotten more people interested in the fifty state strategy.

Now, do I believe in the equation "Scott Kleeb loses therefore fifty state strategy is wrong"? No, and that's true, across the board, with any of these districts. Look at the people who are competing in areas where people still don't understand how they won. Stephanie Herseth won in South Dakota in 2004, same year Tom Daschle lost. Jon Tester wins two years after Brian Schweitzer wins, even though in 2004 [Montana] went heavily Republican, heavily Bush. You know, Earl Pomeroy in all his campaigns, same with [Byron] Dorgan. Colin Peterson -he ran three times before he won. Now that whole north-western part of Minnesota is more blue.

All of those were a sustained effort over a period of time. Schweitzer loses Senate bid then runs for Governor. Nancy Boyda, in Kansas, lost by [a significant margin] in 2004, and she won this year. We've got to realize that immediate results are not going to come from this fifty state strategy… It didn't collapse in two years, it sure as heck isn't going to be rebuilt in two years.

Now, one of the problems I think we need to sort out is: how do you fund a never ending two-year cycle that demands immediate results with a longer term approach that says "you know, we got to put off our cake until later"? That's a huge challenge.
So what are you doing now that the campaign's over?
Looking for a job. Trying to look for a job and find ways to help. You know, my commitment to what you were talking about is still there. Finding ways to help support people. We got some great new legislators here in Lincoln, so hopefully we can work on some of these issues. I know that they're as passionate about these issues as I am, so I hope I can be helpful in that. Continuing to help the party rebuild in areas around the state... continuing to help stoke that fire, I guess, keep it alive.
So are you yourself looking at running for another office?
I have no idea. I don't know.
Have you discussed that with anyone?
There are different people talking to me about things, but I keep telling them: look, I made $2,500 last year. I made $16,000 the year before that. You know, I've got bills. I need to get a life. I need to get a job. That's my focus right now, getting a job. Seeing how I can be helpful... I'm not going to turn my back on it at all. But as far as setting up the next run, if there is one, I don't know. And I'm not being coy, I'm being honest.
Just playing my role as "journalist" here: you haven't closed the doors on running again, say, in two years? Your personal interests don't necessarily conflict with running in '08?
It was the greatest experience of my life. Truly the greatest experience in my life, and one that I'll always cherish, and one that I'll never turn my back on. Does that mean that the potential for me doing this again is real? Yeah, it is. I don't know if it's two years, or four years, or twelve years... whatever it might be. But it was too moving of an experience. I was inspired by that experience. And I'm not going to turn my back on it.
To wrap things up, what do you think the party in general has to do to prepare for 2008 and build off of the successes they had this cycle?
Recognize that the 2008 cycle starts now. What I was saying before about needing to prove yourself as a candidate: we needed to do that, Jim needed to do that, Maxine needed to do that, Nelson had done that... and I think a lot of people got upset that that wasn't fair, you know, "why aren't we giving to every candidate?" and that type of thing, but there's an accountability there and that was good. Now we've proven ourselves. We can't afford to wait a year to try and get involved again.

We need to make sure that the 93 county strategy, which is the in-state equivalent of the 50 state strategy- is implemented in a very real way. We need to encourage, for instance, the people that we brought into our campaign: people who had never been to a Democratic Party function in their entire lives. Those people, their concerns and passions, their wants, needs and desires, hopes and dreams are still the same, and they saw something in our campaign that they didn't see in Adrian's campaign, and they're ready to stay engaged.

I met a woman who had never voted before. She sent me an e-mail that just said "it's time for me to take ownership". That's still there. And what the party will do, I think, is recognize that and encourage those people, make it safe for them to get involved. In that way we will make the 2008 cycle a much more real possibility. We just can't wait until March of '08 to get this thing going. It starts now.

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Anonymous Jon Rehm said...

Message to Scott Kleeb: do what every other jobless liberal arts graduate does -- go to law school. Pass the bar and set yourself up as a country lawyer some place. You know lay down some roots. You would get a good grounding in the day-to-day problems of rural Nebraska and make a decent living. Plus you would probably find yourself a nice farmgirl type if you went to law school. You would be a slam dunk into UNL and you would probably get a ton of scholarships and aide. A law degree opens up a lot of doors -- an UNL Law degree opens up a lot of doors in Nebraska.

Nice interview, I'm surprised no one has commented yet. I get the impression that the low income people of rural Nebraska don't consider themselves poor either. Speaking as a Lincolnite I can say that "they" rural people just live a different lifestyle. I would be interested in getting the candidate to elaborate about specific issues and how he framed those issues in persuading rural voters. I tend to like young liberal populist pundits like Dave Sirota and Tom Frank. Sirota in particular seems to think there is a Democratic DaVinci code for winning over rural voters. (Google David Sirota and Democratic DaVinci Code for the article)His arguments are pretty strong. However as a native Nebraskan I just have the nagging intuition that these big city boys don't quite understand country folk. Any insight gained from first hand experience in winning over rural voters would be appreciated.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


I'm glad you're looking out for Mr. Kleeb's well-being and I'm glad you're happy with your UNL Law degree. But Scott has a PhD. from Yale University. If that, along with his personal charm and clear intelligence, isn't enough to open some doors for him here in Nebraska, then there may be no hope for this state.

And I really don't think becoming a lawyer has any place in Sirota's Democratic DaVinci code. In fact, to appeal to rural voters, it's probably quite the opposite, as many are are rightfully distrustful after decades of exploitation at the hands of bankers, lawyers, and suit-types in general.

Anonymous Jon Rehm said...

You're probably right about the advice to Scott Kleeb. I just hope he finds something productive to do in Nebraska that uses his abilities and skills.

This isn't written in a tone of anger because I know your heart is in the right place. However I can't let your comments about lawyers pass. Lawyers, particularly trial lawyers, advocate for people who would otherwise be exploited by corporate America. I and all other trial lawyers are are on the front lines of corporate America's war on the working and middle class. Lawyers have also long allied with other progressive forces like labor unions to elect pro-worker and pro-consumer lawmakers. The idea that lawyers exploit the working class is ripped straight from Republican talking points. Maybe that's too harsh, but trial lawyers have fallen victim to a 30 year smear campaign by the insurance industry.

Sure voters, particularly rural voters, may distrust lawyers. However those same voters likely know someone who has been helped by a lawyer. Trial lawyers are good candidates because good lawyers can explain complicated rules in plain language. Ultimately a lawyer also has to persuade a jury of average people to find for their client. If you can persuade a jury, you can persuade voters. Look at John Edwards, look at Steve Lathrop. Lawyers as a group and individuals have advocated for justice in court rooms, legislature and in Congress and will continue to do so. They will continue to draw the ire of reactionaries. I urge you to reconsider your view of the profession.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


I'm glad that trial lawyers have taken to defending themselves and their profession, which is as honorable as any and which certainly allows a great many people to do a great deal of good. That said, you shouldn't perceive my speaking to the public's opinion as a personal adoption of the same.

But, the simple truth of the matter is that for every plaintiff's lawyer fighting for truth on one side of a battle, there's another one (or 10, more likely) on the other side of any particular case just doing their job. I have no grudge against either side but can appreciate why voters/citizens feel as they do....unfortunate and unfair as it may be.

Anonymous Jon Rehm said...

True,a great many intelligent, otherwise good people are paid a good amount of money to defend the corporate order. But conservatives cleverly turn this dislike of suits against the very people who are the publics first line of defense against corporate wrongdoing. By attacking all lawyers with a broad stroke you just re-enforce conservative arguments. Just be a little bit more careful when you decide to attack parts of the legal profession


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