Handsome, 6’3 and clad in jeans, cowboy boots and a purple dress shirt, Scott Kleeb GRD ’01 ’03 strode onto Yale’s campus last week to talk about his congressional campaign.
In his six years as a graduate student, Kleeb, 30, inspired admiration from students and professors alike. He won a prize for his overall performance as a teaching assistant for classes such as history professor John Gaddis’ Cold War lecture. He won a spot on the Rumpus’ list of the 50 most beautiful people at Yale. And he won praise from history professor John Mack Faragher for his dissertation on cattle ranching, which he plans to submit this spring.
But whether Kleeb, a Democrat, will win a congressional seat in Nebraska’s heavily Republican third district next year is uncertain.
Judging by the numbers, his chances are slim: 75 percent of the district voted for George W. Bush in last year’s presidential election. Still, state and national Democratic officials say he has potential. Democrat Bob Kerrey, a popular former senator and governor from Nebraska, agreed last week to serve as honorary chair of Kleeb’s finance committee, a move that will likely add credibility and connections to his campaign. This December, Kleeb will speak at a conference hosted by the Young Democrats of America, a nationwide grassroots organization based in Washington, D.C.
Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Kleeb is “the future of the party.”
“He represents what our party is trying to do — talk about our Democratic message to communities all across the country,” Earnest said. “He’s got a bright future in Democratic politics.”
But Jessica Moenning, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said she doubts that Kleeb’s career will begin with a Nebraskan congressional seat. She said he is not a legitimate candidate because he has not spent much time in the state.
“We’re a pretty solidly red state,” she said. “I think it would be a difficult district for any Democrat, but I think particularly for Mr. Kleeb.”
The third district, which comprises 84 percent of Nebraska, is whiter, poorer, older, less educated and more Republican than other parts of the state, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America 2006. Some 92 percent of the state’s population are white, 17 percent graduated college, 17 percent are over age 64, and the median yearly income is about $34,000.
The district is an open seat, and six Republican hopefuls have announced that they will run in the May primary. Kleeb is so far the only Democratic candidate. Neither Kleeb nor any Republican candidate has strong name recognition, said John Anderson, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, Kearny.
Kleeb, who has never held political office before, decided to run last November after U.S. Sen. John Kerry ’66 lost the presidential election.
“As a Democrat I found it frustrating that … my party and its message were not relevant to the middle part of the country,” Kleeb said. “We had let it get into this red and blue divide.”
For Kleeb, emphasizing his Nebraskan roots will be important, since he has spent considerable time outside the state. He grew up on a military base in Italy before attending college at the University of Colorado at Boulder and graduate school at Yale.
On the campaign trail, Kleeb makes clear that his great-grandfather was born in Nebraska. His family owned a small farm in Western Nebraska, although they sold it when Kleeb was young. He worked at the McGinn Ranch Company, a 20,000 acre cattle ranch, for nearly a year between college and graduate school, and he returned there on vacations from Yale. He now runs his campaign from the ranch.
Entries in the Nebraska Democratic Party blog reflect the debate over Kleeb’s state loyalty. One blogger mocked him for being a detached, East Coast, Yale-educated liberal.
But Lee Clausen wrote, “I saw Scott Kleeb speak in person tonight and can confirm that his boots are broken in … That means he is a real cowboy who has actually done some work around the farm.”
And Nolan Gaskill wrote, “Shouldn’t an area in population decline — an area that is losing its younger generation — embrace someone with the intelligence to go to Yale and the sense to return with that education back to his roots?”
Still, Moenning questioned Kleeb’s legitimacy.
“He’s never voted in the state of Nebraska before. He hasn’t paid property taxes there,” she said. “I don’t know how he can want to lead or represent the people in Nebraska.”
Kleeb admitted that he has never voted in the state, and he pays property taxes only on his car. But he laughed off Moenning’s statement.
“I’ve delivered many a calf at three o’clock in a morning and sat on a tractor for 14 hours,” he said. “You can study agriculture and you can also live agriculture.”
Accounts of Kleeb’s time at Yale suggest that he has long identified with Western Nebraska. Kleeb was famous on campus for always wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. He attended a weekly lunch for students interested in Western history. In researching his dissertation on cattle ranching, Kleeb visited nearly every state west of the Mississippi River.
“He made it clear to me from the very beginning that he considers his roots planted in Western soil,” said Faragher, who advised Kleeb’s dissertation. “Here is a man who on the one hand is experienced in the world, is about as intellectually sophisticated as they come, but who has the soil of Nebraska between his toes.”
Kleeb is running his campaign from a two-bedroom rental house on the McGinn ranch. Ben Lumpkin ’96, his communications director and housemate, said Kleeb is always either campaigning — on the phone or on the road — or working on the ranch. Kleeb has visited about 30 counties in Western Nebraska, he said, and he plans to visit all 69 before the race.
“He’ll go to local fairs, he’ll go and address high school students, local Democratic Party groups, a chamber of congress here, a farmers group there,” Lumpkin said.
Kleeb’s ranch work gives him a break from campaigning. As a ranch hand, he might move cattle from pasture to pasture, assemble bales of hay, or help cows give birth, Lumpkin explained.
“You’re outside, you’re breathing the hay and you can take your mind off stuff for a while,” Lumpkin said. “And the cows don’t talk about politics.”
Kleeb’s platform focuses on agricultural and economic issues. The third congressional district, which is 54 percent rural, has a serious depopulation problem, Kleeb said, partly because economic pressures are forcing small farmers and ranchers to sell out to conglomerates. Kleeb argues that family farms can survive with the government’s help. For example, he said, much of Western Nebraska lacks cell phone and high speed Internet service. If the government provided that technology, small farmers could reach a broader market, he said.
“This man I think will be standing up for the small farmer,” said Steve Achelpohl, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “He’s really staked himself to the notion of helping reverse rural decline in our state.”
As for other issues, Kleeb supports alternative energy sources such as wind and ethanol. He supports No Child Left Behind, but he argues that the law should be fully funded. He opposes President George W. Bush ’68’s 2001 tax cuts, and he voices concern about the ballooning federal budget deficit.
Kleeb is a member of the Truman National Security Project, a movement that calls on Democrats to support a strong, active foreign policy. He supports the Iraq War and argues for sending more troops to that region.
Cautious when talking about his social policies, Kleeb says he supports civil unions but not gay marriage, though he thinks states should decide the issue. He argues that abortion should not be legal, but it should not be criminalized. Faragher said he has no doubt Kleeb is a social liberal.
Author Thomas Frank’s thesis in “What’s the Matter With Kansas” predicts trouble for Kleeb on social issues. Frank posits that struggling farmers and ranchers who live on the Great Plains elect Republicans because they put cultural values before their economic interests.
Kleeb argues that economic concerns do matter to Nebraskans, but past Democratic candidates have not articulated a convincing economic message. He said he hopes to do just that.
“People already talk more about paychecks and incomes and wages and education and energy prices,” he said. But “people vote for the only thing they’ve heard about, which is the Republican message of social conservatism.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Kleeb is that most voters in the third district are registered Republicans. A Democratic Party official and two university professors who were interviewed said they could not remember the last time a Democrat won the third district congressional seat. Last year, the Democratic candidate got 11 percent of the vote. But Anderson of UNK said Kleeb stands a chance because Nebraskans vote for the individual, not for a party.
“Even though Nebraskans are strongly Republican, they’re also independent,” he said. “They’ll vote for the person they like.”
If Kleeb loses in 2006, his race will still give the Democratic Party a brief presence in Nebraska’s third district. National Democratic Committee chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy calls for grassroots organizing even in heavily Republican states. Kleeb’s long-shot campaign is in lockstep with that strategy. Like any good politician, Kleeb declares he will win. But to Faragher, Kleeb seems to see his race from a long term perspective, as one step toward rebuilding the Democratic Party in the Western plains.