LINCOLN, Neb. — Scott Kleeb GRD ‘06, the rancher turned Yale scholar turned politician, was decisively defeated Tuesday by former Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns in the race to fill Chuck Hagel’s seat in the United States Senate.
Although Kleeb’s campaign felt momentum at its wings in recent days, the margin between the opponents turned out to be more than 18 percentage points, or 135,000 votes. The ultimate outcome, however, came as no surprise to the 33-year-old Kleeb: In Nebraska, a decidedly conservative state, Johanns, also a former U.S. Agriculture Secretary, is a household name. Still, Kleeb, a former Hastings College professor, said afterwards that “no part of me is done,” and his supporters suggested that his political career is anything but over.
“This,” he told the News in an interview, “is one step in a long road.”
The road, in a sense, has already been long. Kleeb began his political career after John Gaddis, the famous Yale Cold War professor who became close to the history graduate student through the Grand Strategy program and in his capacity as head Cold War TA, urged him to enter politics.
Even after an unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in 2006, it did not come as a shock to friends and family when Kleeb announced his bid for the US Senate in February.
Winning the primary on his youthful and passionate promise to provide a Nebraskan brand of change, Kleeb, who ultimately centered his campaign on his “Ten Commitments to Serve Nebraska” and his voter-message-ridden 2000 Chevy pick-up, took off full speed — but never truly saw momentum. All seven major state newspaper endorsed Johanns; national reporters turned a blind eye; the other campaign played it safe.
Still, change was in the air at the Wick Alumni Center here Tuesday night. Seconds after networks called the presidential race for Barack Obama, prompting bittersweet cheers of “Yes We Can” in the crowd of about two hundred, Kleeb emerged with his family in a suit, blue shirt and red tie to roaring applause.
“Washington won’t change Nebraska,” he declared, “but Nebraska sure can change Washington.”
Echoing a favorite refrain, Kleeb also told those in the room what he says to those who ask, “Where do we start?”
“I’ve always given the same answer: You start. You start.”
The candidate was introduced by the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” and Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, a close supporter.
“Scott Kleeb has made us all proud,” the mayor said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him. Nebraska will elevate him yet.”
In an interview afterwards with the News, Kleeb waxed poetic about public service — despite a nine-month campaign that left him far behind his opponent — and his time at Yale.
“Politics at its root is about people — that’s where the Greek word comes from — and everything we do at Yale is never locked in an Ivory Tower,” he said. “Everything that I’ve learned makes sense in a way that books will never put flesh on until you actually get out there and realize that we all have a duty to give back.”
If he could do it over, Kleeb said he might have focused more on Omaha, but he would not say whether he will, indeed, do it over.
At the party, there was torn emotion; although Kleeb lost, Obama took the White House, which Kleeb said meant the dawning of a “new era.” There was also some palpable enthusiasm among staffers that their candidate had successfully reached out to some independents and conservatives.
Lisa Hannah, the chair for the conservative Third Congressional District, was not surprised by the victory. There was no other likely outcome, she said.
“Nebraskans tend to go for former governors and business men when it comes to the Senate,” she explained. “Johanns was their safe choice here.”
Allen Shreiber, who described himself as a “Republican for Kleeb,” said he told Kleeb afterwards, “I don’t care: whatever you’re running for next, you have me in your corner right now.”
Meanwhile, the actual Republican in the race — Johanns — said in an interview with the News just after midnight that he was looking forward to moving past partisanship.
“I think [Nebraskans] are looking for somebody who can look the election is over, the partisan bickering has to come to end,” he said. “Let’s go to work and solve problems.”
As for Kleeb?
“I think Scott would benefit from experience,” Johanns said. “I think that’s the bottom line. I think some background would be very, very helpful to him. And that just takes some time.”
On this point, perhaps all sides can agree.
“It’s bittersweet. The country’s going in a better direction, which was a real goal,” said Kevin Beiging, a staffer who spent the past five months, often not sleeping much, by Kleeb’s side. “It didn’t work out here, but you just keep going. That’s all you can do, right?”