In late 2005, a ranch hand from Dunning, Nebraska, with a PhD in history from Yale launched a seemingly hopeless campaign for Congress. The western two-thirds of Nebraska voted for Bush by a 3-1 margin in 2004. Tom Osborne, the current Congressman, was retiring to run for Governor of Nebraska, but it was still such a significant uphill battle that Scott Kleeb was basically laughed out of the office when he approached national Democratic Party officials about running.
But Kleeb was not deterred. And over the next several months, he spoke to people across the third district of Nebraska, listening to their concerns, and spreading a real message of hope for all Nebraskans. Then a funny thing happened: people started believing. By September, his internal polling was showing him ahead of Republican candidate Adrian Smith. A week before the election, George Bush had to come to Grand Island, Nebraska, to bail Smith out. And though, in the end, the election went to Smith, it was not a failure. Scott Kleeb connected with people, many of whom had never even met a Democrat, let alone voted for one. And it's that encouragement that leads to the next chapter of this campaign.
In a message to his supporters, Scott Kleeb writes:
As each day passes, I am more and more appreciative of what we accomplished together on our campaign for Congress last year. I can say without a doubt that the campaign was the most rewarding, most energizing and most inspiring endeavor in which I have ever been involved. Since then, I remain excited about our future in Nebraska and am currently exploring several options to continue and expand our campaign.
From Columbus to Scottsbluff, from Valentine to McCook, we sparked a conversation across our district that rejected partisan politics and embraced the common belief among all Nebraskans that together we can create a better life for ourselves and for our children, that we can again believe in that common bond of faith in a democratic process, that we can again believe that our fates are connected and that together we make more of an impact than we can separately.
One of the options that Kleeb is exploring? A run for United States Senate. He makes it clear that he defers to Bob Kerrey or Mike Fahey in this race, but also that he'd be very interested in running if both of them declined a bid:
Asked in a telephone interview whether he might be a 2008 Senate candidate if former Sen. Bob Kerrey and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey decline a Democratic bid, Kleeb said: "I’d definitely consider it, for sure."
However, he noted, "that’s a lot of ifs."
Whatever the office, the message will remain the same. The progressive message that connected with voters in the third district of Nebraska and Democrats all across America who saw the potential in Scott Kleeb.
As Ryan Anderson writes at the New Nebraska Network, Kleeb's campaign begins with a promise:
The promise? A new brand of politics. A lofty goal, but Kleeb's "brand" isn't really new... at least not to anyone who followed his first campaign. That Nebraska could realize untapped potential if only it could recognize common interests and goals... this is the message that inspired the uninvolved and persuaded the straight-ticket Republicans. This is the message that brought Kleeb within ten points of victory, despite negative ads and dirty tricks, in a district Bush carried by 50%.
The story of that campaign has been told and retold many times, by myself and others across this state and beyond. But what's generally gone unreported (if not necessarily unnoticed) is the story behind that story: the hard work and solid instincts that helped turn an unknown ranch hand into a transformative political figure. Because Scott Kleeb isn't just an inspiring presence on the stump, he's a student and a laborer, a man who does his homework and isn't afraid to do the heavy lifting required of his campaign.
This will obviously be an uphill battle. Whether it's a statewide race against a significant Republican operation, or the prospect of knocking off an incumbent in one of the most Republican districts in the nation, this isn't going to be easy. But it's the promise of energizing more Nebraskans to become engaged in politics, to care about the future of their state while those in office fritter it away, to say "enough" and stand up to those who would sell out their interests and instead focus on their largest campaign contributors. Scott Kleeb is ready for that.
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