The sun set on a cold Election Day in Omaha. As the polls closed, Kara Eastman surrounded herself with friends, family and volunteers, waiting to see if years spent sacrificing, fundraising and campaigning would pay off.
It did not.
On Nov. 3, Eastman lost by more than three times the number of votes Rep. Don Bacon beat her by in 2018. Eastman and her husband, Scott, watched as nearly every other Democrat trying to unseat a Republican across the nation suffered the same fate.
“One by one, they had all lost,” Eastman said. “I went into our war room, and I said to my team, ‘It’s like The Hunger Games. All of our friends are getting murdered around the country. It’s a bloodbath right now for Democrats.’”
Eastman’s loss was part of a string of defeats for Nebraska Democrats on Election Day.
Republicans held all three of Nebraska’s congressional seats. Sen. Ben Sasse won re-election.
If there was one bright spot for Democrats on Election Day, it was Joe Biden winning an electoral vote from the congressional district that encompasses Omaha and its suburbs. However, the single vote proved inconsequential in Biden’s hefty victory. It was also likely carried more by suburban centrists who disliked President Donald Trump than ardent Democrats who liked Biden. Trump carried Nebraska’s four other electoral votes.
“The results of the election tell us that we’ve got some problems here, and we need to completely re-tool,” said former Douglas County Democrats Chair Crystal Rhoades, who was reelected as a public service commissioner.
Statewide, the Nebraska Democratic Party is grappling with questions about its future, even as it’s slowly gaining ground in fielding more candidates and closing lop-sided results in most races. Faced with bridging moderates and progressives, it’s struggled to solidify political approaches on issues like racial justice while keeping people interested in a party that has lost voting power in every single Nebraska county since the turn of the millennium.
Party leaders on every level believe the key to success is improving turnout and running on widely supported policies.
“The Democratic Party’s job, first and foremost, is to elect more Democrats. I think we do that by connecting with voters more on issues,” said NDP Chair Jane Kleeb.
But leaders are finding it hard to please everyone. While some, like Kleeb, who rose to prominence in the party through her work protesting the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, want to embrace new voices, others say the party needs to stay in the center. Activists say it shouldn’t have to be a choice if Democrats want to be the more inclusive, moral political party.
“We have the opportunity to prove that we’ve listened to vulnerable communities and that we’ve listened to Black and Brown communities,” said community activist Ja Keen Fox.
The next test for Democrats will be citywide elections in Omaha on May 11. The lineup is deep with 11 mayoral candidates and 32 people who’ve requested petitions for Omaha City Council.
That test had an early stumble when Democrat Colleen Brennan was selected by the City Council to serve the remainder of Councilman Rich Pahls’ term on Dec. 22. Pahls currently holds the southwest Omaha District 5 seat and will begin his term in the Nebraska Legislature in January.
The selection of Brennan turned controversial when the World Herald reported on her personal blog, over 60 posts, some indelicately stumbling through a range of topics from race relations to the COVID pandemic. Brennan suggested the response to her posts has been “blown out of proportion,” and at the time this story goes to press, she still plans to keep the seat and to run for the District 5 seat next spring.
Mark Hoeger, former CD2 chair and school board member for the Learning Community of Douglas-Sarpy Counties, believes the city elections still represent an opportunity for Democrats.
“It’s all about the down-ballot races,” Hoeger said. “That’s where we can make real progress.”
On Sept. 26, more than a month from Election Day, members of the state Democratic party gathered for a vote. On paper it may have seemed inconsequential. A resolution that didn’t change policy or shuffle leadership.
But it set a rift in motion, legitimizing a building tension in the party.
The proposal, passed by the NDP’s State Central Committee, said Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine had perpetuated white supremacy, which Fox saw as a simple acceptance of fact. Kleine, who is white, had declined to press charges against Jake Gardner, a white downtown bar owner, after he shot and killed 21-year-old James Scurlock, who is Black, during a protest on May 30. After a grand jury investigation yielded manslaughter charges, Kleine publicly attacked the special prosecutor, who is Black.
“Don Kleine was asked a tough question about race that he couldn’t answer,” Fox said, referring to the Sept. 26 resolution. “Because of this he decided he wanted to become a Republican and vote for Donald Trump.”
The ideological split widened when Brad Ashford, a former Democratic congressman from Nebaska’s 2nd Congressional District, endorsed Rep. Don Bacon. Eastman, who has called for more progressive ideals, had beaten both Ashford and his wife, Anne, who ran on moderate campaigns, in primaries.
“That was very disappointing for us,” said Kleeb. “I made it clear to Representative Ashford in several phone calls that his endorsement hurt the party.”
Dr. Paul Landow, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, thinks part of the problem is Democrats have placed bad bets. He says they need to pivot to more moderate candidates.
“Eastman was out of touch with the district. She ran too far left,” said Landow. “The party has to recruit candidates that are more moderate and have a broader appeal.”
Meanwhile, progressives want the party to do more to shield progressive candidates from Republican attacks.
Eastman says Democrats shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that she was too far left for the district. She points to the fact that she got a higher percentage of votes than moderate candidates in other races, such as Senate candidates Sarah Gideon in Maine, Theresa Greenfield in Iowa and Amy McGrath in Kentucky.
As the NDP chair, Kleeb has to help the party move past its internal conflict. But she sees the party’s ideological diversity as a strength to be embraced.
“My mantra is always that all shades of blue are welcome in our party,” she said. “When you have moderate, progressive and conservative viewpoints at the table, your solution is going to be stronger.
State Sen. Tony Vargas has long tried to bridge the gap between moderate and progressive ideals. In the Nebraska Legislature, he’s worked across the aisle on a number of issues, but he often stands with the body’s small number of progressive senators.
“We need to be more OK with having differences of opinion,” he said. “At the end of the day our job is still to stand up for working families and do everything to support each other as Democrats.”
For Hoeger, while this time feels acrimonious, it’s just another incremental step in a long evolution. Since 1976 when Jimmy Carter ran for president, he’s watched the Democratic Party bicker, fight and change. This is nothing new.
“That’s a problem that every political party has had for the last 400 years,” Hoeger said. “That’s part of the process, the debate and discussion. That’s how the party evolves.”
Reckoning with Race: NDP & BLM
When Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets in Omaha, Lincoln and more than a dozen other Nebraska communities this summer, NDP leaders were forced to think about their role in challenging structural racism.
The party has tried to incorporate activists’ calls for better representation. In 2018 leaders created a Candidates of Color Fund.
“We heard loud and clear from activists that Black, Latino, Native American candidates did not have the same access to donor databases as their white counterparts,” Kleeb said.
Black Caucus Chair Precious McKesson said the fund is already having an impact, making it more possible to have a diverse slate of candidates who can encourage voters of color.
“You’re starting to see more candidates of color that are running, and you’re seeing more resources allocated to those candidates,” she said.
But not all the party’s efforts to incorporate new opinions go smoothly.
Landow thinks the party’s decision to denounce Kleine’s actions as perpetuating white supremacy backfired on Democrats in the election. Republicans and Democrats spoke out against the resolution. The Douglas County Board of Commissioners passed its own resolution denouncing the party’s denouncement. Some Democratic voters left the party saying this was the last straw.
“The Don Kleine resolution did serious damage to the party’s standing in the state by criticizing their own elected county prosecutor,” Landow said. “Where does it say that political party leaders should criticize their own elected officials?”
Douglas County Democrats Chair CJ King did not see eye to eye with the state party on this matter. He said he thought the resolution denouncing Kleine was counterproductive and “short sighted.”
“We had a good chance to make changes in the party without calling out an individual and declaring he was perpetuating white supremacy,” he said. “That’s a harsh statement to make about anyone, and I don’t think the party is well served by doing that.”
But while some members of the NDP think the party went too far with the resolution, others believe it still has more work to do. McKesson said if you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re not doing your job right.
Kleeb said the party needs to be a gathering place for these types of opinions.
“It’s not the party’s role to lead movements, but when it comes time to passing resolutions and platforms, that’s when we have the activists’ backs,” she said.
Fox said the NDP has been responsive, but initiatives like creating a Black Lives Matter platform, which they added in 2018 to outline the party’s commitment to fighting systemic racism, lack teeth if they don’t engage activists, organizers and community members.
Fox said he believes the NDP’s response to racial justice issues is inadequate, which he says is particularly frustrating because of the overwhelming support that Black voters give to Democrats in every election.
“We’re being taken for granted in a way that we should not be,” he said.
Winning on the Issues
Though there’s much that NDP members disagree on, there are several issues where they find common ground. And they’re not the only ones.
Despite Nebraska Democrats losing across the board on Nov. 3, several ballot measures on NDP-backed policies passed by wide margins. Removing constitutional language on slavery, capping payday lender interest rates, authorizing gambling and others all won with more than 60% support from voters.
“As a Democratic voter it’s frustrating to see that we can win statewide on issues like casinos, Medicaid expansion, minimum wage with 60% to 65% of the vote,” Kleeb said. “We often ask ourselves as Democrats, ‘Why can’t a Democrat win statewide with those margins?’”
For King, it comes down to messaging. While people support these issues, it still takes some political footwork to get them in the door.
“People want a lot of the Democratic ideals, but they want to hear what the reasonable solution is. Then our message needs to be on point and not distracted by what Republicans say,” King said. “We can’t allow ourselves to be characterized by what they say.”
Many attribute Eastman’s loss this time around to pro-Bacon advertisements that labeled her a socialist. A more offensive advertising campaign could have made the difference, some think.
One solution could be earlier fundraising that could allow organizers to control the messaging and narrative around these issues.
“As Democrats, we tend to get money late in races, and candidates don’t have the ability to reframe the narrative that the Republicans already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars calling them a socialist and all these other negative things,” Kleeb said.
For Sen. Vargas, it comes down to authenticity. If Nebraska Democrats lead by focusing more on issues that are important to voters, he believes Democrats can begin to break through in a state long controlled by Republicans.
“People vote on the issues, period,” he said. “People vote for policy initiatives that are typically part of the Democratic Party’s platform by big margins, and that’s very encouraging for me.”
Trouble with Turnout
One lesson from the 2020 election that Nebraska Democrats agreed upon is voter turnout efforts were insufficient. They attribute it largely to the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the field operations of campaigns. But many Nebraska Democrats still think other voter outreach efforts could have helped boost turnout.
“The nuts-and-bolts work of turning out voters didn’t happen at the rate we needed it to,” Rhoades said. “We need to focus on that singularly, putting all of our money and resources into voter outreach and turnout.”
In fact, Democratic control in Nebraska is in dire straits. Since 2000, Democrats’ share of registered voters has shrunk in every Nebraska county. Statewide their share of registered voters has dropped by nearly 20%. The number of registered Republicans has also slipped by 3% in the same time period. Meanwhile, the share of nonpartisan voters has grown by 50%.
Despite declining registrations, Democratic turnout has increased over time. However, it’s far from matching the number of registered Republicans or the number of people who vote for Republican candidates.
Still, Kleeb says she’s encouraged by the turnout she’s seen in rural and urban communities. While organizers are still a long way from getting to turnouts that would lead to statewide victories, it’s still a positive improvement, she said.
“The trend is definitely going in our direction.”
King said he’s also encouraged by the trends among rural voters. But at the same time he hopes that doesn’t mean the state party takes urban votes for granted.
“I give Jane credit for pushing hard to make inroads in rural communities, but to some degree I worry that her focus on rural communities might be to the detriment of Omaha and Lincoln, where we have a lot more Democrats. I believe in building the party, but there has to be some balance there,” King said.
Despite the criticisms about turnout problems, Kleeb still believes the organizational strength of the party is improving. During her tenure as NDP chair, she says her goal has been to build a permanent volunteer infrastructure, making sure the party is staying engaged in the community outside of election season.
The Block Captain Program is one example of how Kleeb has worked toward her goal of building a permanent volunteer base. Those who sign up for the program are given a list of 50 voters in their community, including Democrats and independents who lean Democrat. The volunteers must make contact with these voters every year, even when it’s not an election year. Kleeb believes this program will be the key for the party’s success in future elections.
“We started with 200 block captains, and now we have over a thousand,” Kleeb said. “That’s a real, lasting legacy. When I’m no longer chair someday, it’ll be a stronger Democratic Party that we pass on.”
Plan for Partnership: Uniting the Party
As the NDP seeks to build a bridge between its ideological wings, activists are already working to bring the establishment and grassroots to the table together. Included in the Sept. 26 NDP resolution, submitted by McKesson on behalf of Fox, is a commitment by the party to work more closely with activists.
In what Fox calls his “plan for partnership,” he proposed improvements to the party’s platform and messaging, as well as increased training and resources for activists who want to run for office.
“There’s a real opportunity to create a strategy in partnership with activists and organizers who do the groundwork 365 days a year, not just during election season,” Fox said.
One of the key components of the plan is diversity training. Kleeb said that’s something they’re working on for this year, thinking of it as a tool that can build better policy, candidates and community relations. And it doesn’t stop there. Kleeb said Democrats can’t ignore movements.
“I think there is clearly a role for activists in our party, moving towards the goal of electing more Democrats,” Kleeb said. “There’s a place for their voice and their skills.”
For many, accepting that change feels like a critical piece of the NDP’s future. Getting the establishment and activists to put their disagreements aside and work together is a crucial first step toward the party’s goal of electing Democrats.
“This time allows us to become the best versions of ourselves that we’ve talked about being, but never accomplished because of the fear of change,” Fox said.