Thursday, June 15, 2006

Democrats rebuild on the prairie

By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY
FREMONT, Neb. — It was standing room only the other night at the Blue Bottle Coffeehouse. The Dodge County Democrats were meeting for their convention — and there were about 60 of them, up from barely a dozen in 2004.
That was enough for outgoing chairman Jim Dake to declare the county's Democratic Party officially revitalized. "The proof is all around you," he said. "We've filled the room."

Early organizing, early advertising and a full slate of candidates for Congress are among the signs of hope for Democrats in this conservative farm state with a streak of prairie populism. Their real test will come on Election Day, though, and Republicans here say they shouldn't get their hopes too high.

Jessica Moenning, executive director of the state GOP, says Nebraska Republicans are a potential "bright spot" in what could be a gloomy national picture. "I'm not suggesting that the Democrats haven't tried to ramp up and rebuild their party," she says. "But it's just an uphill climb" for them here.

When Howard Dean ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he promised state parties he would spread money and professionals around the country in a long-term quest for viability in "red" Republican states. He's followed through with a 50-state plan to revive moribund state and local organizations.

Dean says Democrats have dug themselves "a deep hole" by focusing on one election at a time, usually in the "blue" states where Democrats are strong. "That's a cycle that has to be broken. We want a long-term business plan," he says.

Congressional leaders such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the party's House campaign committee, have been critical of Dean's spending priorities. They say money and staff should be concentrated this year in states with close races because Democrats are in such a strong position to make gains.

"This election is a historic opportunity," Emanuel says. "The question is, are we going to have the resources to seize it?"

The Democratic Party is not entirely bereft in Nebraska. The mayors of Omaha and Lincoln are Democrats. There's even a U.S. senator, Ben Nelson, whose re-election campaign this year is a rallying point for the state party.

But Republicans outnumber Democrats 35-12 in the state's nominally non-partisan one-chamber Legislature. All three of the state's U.S. House members are Republicans. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state.

President Clinton waited until he had served seven years and 11 months of his eight-year tenure before paying a visit. President Bush did twice as well here in 2004 as his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry (66% to 33%).

The state was a low priority for the DNC. Of the $731 million the party raised for the 2004 elections, Nebraska got $12,000. "The national Democrats were sucking money and volunteers" out of Nebraska, state party chairman Steve Achelpol says. Adds executive director Barry Rubin, "They called us an 'export state.' "

Times have changed. The DNC is now spending $120,000 a year to pay the salaries of three organizers and a spokesman here. Nationwide, the party has hired and trained about 190 people in 50 states in its $10-million-a-year program. The goal is to create voter lists and activist networks that don't vanish when campaigns are over or powerful Democrats retire.

Dean's critics don't dispute the need to build a strong party infrastructure. But they worry about competing with the GOP.

The DNC under Dean has raised $80 million since the last election and has about $9 million on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. The Republican National Committee has $45 million on hand. "You've got to find a way to blunt that," Emanuel says.

DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton says the bulk of party spending has been to expand donor and voter lists and upgrade technology — steps that will help Democrats this year and in the future.

Success stories cited by the DNC include West Virginia, where the party created a precinct program to bolster organizing and turnout and has recruited leaders for almost half the state's nearly 2,000 precincts; and South Dakota, where the state party fielded candidates for 94 of the 105 legislative seats — 26 more than in 2002.

In Nebraska, the picture is mixed. Republicans are running unopposed in three top statewide races: auditor, treasurer and attorney general. But Democrats are fielding more candidates than usual in congressional and legislative races.

Two years ago, 11 Democrats were on the November ballot for the state Legislature; this fall there will be 15. Four years ago, Democrats had a candidate in one of three races for Congress.

This year they have candidates for all three seats: cattle rancher Scott Kleeb, attorney Jim Esch and former lieutenant governor Maxine Moul. All three are "a cut or two above" the usual in quality, says state politics expert Robert Sittig, a retired University of Nebraska professor.

Some observers say the Democrats are more visible and quicker off the mark than in past years. For more than a month the party has been running three statewide TV ads touting Nelson's record. Sara Crook, a political scientist at Peru State College, south of Omaha, said it's "extremely unusual" to see ads so early.

Here in Fremont, the Democrats opened a campaign office to help candidates up and down the ticket. "Usually at this stage we're just trying to get a couple of people to parades," activist and attorney Richard Register says. He also says the party usually has to "twist arms" to find delegates to the state convention. At this meeting, volunteers had to be turned away.

"The wind is coming back into the sails of the Democratic Party," says David Hahn, the party's nominee against Republican Gov. Dave Heineman.

Never mind that Hahn's odds are long, or that this county seat is named for the very first Republican presidential candidate ever — explorer and Army general John C. Fremont. The newly elected county chairwoman, Fremont attorney Chris Boydston, is a convert from "a diehard Republican family." She was increasingly angered by the GOP literature in her mailbox, she says, and finally told herself: "I'm a Democrat, I should embrace it."


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