Democrats in Republican strongholds often try a similar strategy: fielding moderate candidates who can pull a few moderate GOP voters over to their side.
The problem is, at least in Nebraska, that strategy hasn't worked.
That's why the state's incoming Democratic Party chair, Jane Kleeb, wants to shake things up. Her plan is to field candidates who are more progressive. And in a campaign in which the Republican presidential nominee's poll numbers are tanking, Kleeb is betting that she can help at least a few Democrats get elected.
That's the subject of “Blue Wind on a Red Prairie,” the last in our documentary series, Postcards from the Great Divide, which we've been running on The Fix since July.
In the documentary, filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker and Paul Stekler follow Kleeb as she attempts to drum up support for Democratic candidates across the state. But that's a tall order in Nebraska: Kleeb is often seen addressing events where just a few people showed up — usually people she knows well. The state legislature reflects that reality, too. Republicans hold 35 of 49 seats in the legislature; just 12 are held by Democrats. Both of the state's U.S. senators are Republicans, as are two of three House members.
Kleeb says Democrats' whole political strategy has been wrong in the state for years.
“There has been one way that we've done politics in Nebraska, and that's to whisper to our neighbors that we are Democrats, and to run moderate Democrats,” she said. “And that is losing elections for us. It's not a winning combination.”
The problem, she says, is that Democrats too often ignore rural voters who might actually buy into some of their ideas — like when she rallied ranchers against the Keystone XXL oil pipeline, and won.
“Those people who want to come out, the closet Democrats — getting 20 percent just makes it tough for anybody to feel proud about being a Democrat,” said one voter Kleeb meets with.
That's why Kleeb is taking it one small meeting at a time. She holds what she calls “community conversations,” but jokes that those events are just an excuse to “eat steak and drink whiskey.”
While Kleeb's energetic strategy has earned her plaudits, it's worth pointing out that her husband, Scott Kleeb, ran for one of Nebraska's two Senate seats in 2008 — a great down-ballot year for Democrats because of huge turnout driven by excitement around now-President Obama — and lost by an 18-point margin. That underscores just how tough it is for Democrats to win there.
Ultimately, Jane Kleeb says, it's not just about local Nebraska politics — it's about turning a red state purple.
“We're not going to be a strong Democratic Party for the short or long term if we just focus on the East and West Coast of America,” Kleeb reflects as she drives through seemingly endless Nebraska cornfields. “Just because there's not a Democratic majority in Nebraska, it doesn't mean that there's not Democrats that can and should be elected.”
“Blue Wind on a Red Prairie” is just one in the series “Political Postcards from the Great Divide.” You can see the rest here.