Nebraska Senate: Don’t Gas Up the Scott Kleeb Senate Bandwagon Just Yet

by Stuart Rothenberg November 22, 2007 · 11:05 PM EST

To hear some of the early Democratic buzz (and even media hype) about Scott Kleeb’s chances in the Nebraska Senate race, you’d think the Cornhusker State’s 2008 Senate race might be worth watching, even without former Sen. Bob Kerrey or Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey carrying the Democratic banner.

Well, at this point, the state’s Senate race is worth watching, but only through the Republican primary. If a Democratic victory in the state is not impossible, it is certainly implausible.

Much has been made by those encouraging Kleeb to run that Democrats have had their share of victories in the state. That’s true. Democrats have won nine of the past 11 Senate races in Nebraska, including a stretch of seven in a row from 1976 to 1994. They’ve also won nine of the state’s past 15 gubernatorial elections.

But if you’ve been watching Nebraska politics for the past 25 or 30 years, as I have, you know those numbers are misleading and probably irrelevant in 2008.

Too often, a vitally important tidbit about Democratic successes in the state is left out: All of those 18 races were won by one of only four Democrats: J.J. Exon, Ed Zorinsky, Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson. Exon, Kerrey and Nelson were elected as and served as governor before winning election to the Senate. Their records as governor credentialed them to run for federal office.

Zorinsky, of course, was the Republican mayor of Omaha who switched parties to run for the Senate as a Democrat only when the state GOP handed the party’s Senate nomination to the Republican Congressman from Omaha. During his years in the Senate, Zorinsky was a favorite of Washington, D.C., conservatives because he voted like a Republican. Indeed, every two years rumors circulated that Zorinsky would switch back to his old party if it needed his vote to organize the Senate.

So Democrats don’t simply drop out of the sky to win statewide races in Nebraska. Kerrey would have been very competitive next year. Fahey would have been an interesting nominee. Nobody else comes close.

This brings us to Kleeb, whose major asset seems to be his rugged good looks, especially when he is atop a horse or wearing his cowboy hat. He has been praised by one liberal activist as a “solid progressive,” hardly an asset in Nebraska.

Kleeb, who currently is a program officer in the Center for Student Leadership at Hastings College (which is located in the south-central part of the state), drew 45 percent of the vote in an open-seat House race last year in Nebraska’s very Republican 3rd district. On the strength of that showing, some Democrats are making the case that he would be a formidable candidate for the Senate.

Kleeb’s showing was good, considering that he parachuted into the state (from Colorado and then graduate school at Yale) shortly before he began his Congressional bid. In one of the most creative efforts I’ve ever seen to connect a candidate to a state with which he had little or no personal connection, Kleeb’s Congressional campaign distributed a sheet that said that he “was raised on Nebraska stories” and “was raised on a U.S. Army installation in Italy, but he grew up knowing his home was in Nebraska.”

So what about Kleeb’s 45 percent showing in a district that went 75 percent for George W. Bush two years earlier? Doesn’t that demonstrate Kleeb’s appeal and potential statewide strength?

First, 2006 and 2008 are very different years, with last year being the worst political environment for Republicans since Watergate and next year being a presidential year. Second, those who point to Kleeb’s showing either don’t know to look at the district’s history or ignored important facts that put his showing into context.

Nebraska’s 3rd district was open in 2000, when football coach icon Tom Osborne (R) was easily elected to fill it. But the previous time it was open was 1990, when veteran Rep. Virginia Smith (R) retired.

The election to fill Smith’s open seat was close — far closer than Kleeb’s 10-point miss last time. Republican Bill Barrett beat Democrat Sandra Scofield by just 4,373 votes, 51 percent to 49 percent. The race was that close even though George H.W. Bush carried the district with 67 percent in 1988 and Ronald Reagan took 78 percent there in the 1984 White House election.

In 1992, Barrett won re-election with 72 percent of the vote as Bush was carrying the district in a three-way race with 49 percent and Democrat Bill Clinton was finishing third (behind Ross Perot) with 23 percent of the vote.

Want further evidence that Kleeb’s showing in last year’s open seat wasn’t all that shocking? When the untouchable Virginia Smith first won the 3rd district House seat during the 1974 midterms, her margin was 737 votes (50.2 percent to 49.8 percent) over Democrat Wayne Ziebarth. Two years later, she won re-election with 75 percent as Gerald Ford (R) was carrying the district with 63 percent of the vote in the presidential contest.

Apparently, close open-seat races in the 3rd district are the rule, not the exception, at least when they occur during midterms. And two of the past three were closer than 2006.

Republicans have two strong, conservative candidates for the Senate. Unless the Republican primary produces an absolute bloodbath — and the May primary date gives time for wounds to heal — the party will have a well-known current or former statewide officeholder running for the Senate in a presidential year. The national Democratic ticket is not likely to have much appeal in central and western Nebraska. [Editor's Note: Since the article was first written, Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) dropped out of the race, eliminating the chance of a competitive primary.]

You need to believe the unbelievable to think that Kleeb or any Democrat not named Kerrey (or, possibly, Fahey) would have any chance of winning the state’s Senate seat next year. Kleeb apparently is mulling a Senate bid or another run for the House, which would be almost as uphill. If he’s serious about a political career, he ought to look at another route to federal office.