Jane Kleeb says Democrats need to focus on the 2018 election rather than argue among themselves whether it was a tactical mistake to bring Bernie Sanders to Omaha to stump for Democratic mayoral candidate Heath Mello.
Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, has been criticized by some Democrats for her decision to invite Sanders to Nebraska. She said the criticism is “silly” and counterproductive.
“Democrats in this state have got to start looking in the mirror and stop pointing fingers. This is not the first race we have lost,” said Kleeb, the party’s new leader who supported Sanders in last year’s presidential election.
Kleeb invited Sanders to Nebraska, saying she believed the Vermont U.S. senator would “energize” the Democratic base and bring national attention to the race. Mello agreed to attend the rally after the invite had already been issued.
Paul Landow, who served as chief of staff for then-Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, a Democrat, lambasted Kleeb for inviting Sanders to Omaha, saying it failed to significantly boost Democratic turnout and, he argued, served only to energize Republican voters to go to the polls.
Mello lost to Republican Jean Stothert by nearly 7 percentage points in last Tuesday’s election.
“You’re running in a moderate to conservative town in a conservative state and you’re bringing in an East Coast socialist to campaign? How is that good strategy?” asked Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Stothert’s campaign manager, Sam Fischer, agreed with Landow. He said the Stothert campaign came to believe the Sanders visit energized their own GOP base. Fischer said that after the visit was announced, the campaign noticed an uptick in volunteers showing up at their office to canvass on Stothert’s behalf.
Mello was unavailable for comment Friday, but his chief political consultant, Ian Russell, defended the decision to bring Sanders to Omaha. Russell said the campaign needed to take some risks in order to defeat Stothert, an incumbent mayor with high favorability ratings in Mello’s own internal polls.
Russell also said his own polling showed that Sanders was viewed favorably by many Omahans, and he believed Sanders would be able to energize the base. In the end, about 35 percent of registered voters cast ballots, only slightly above the 33 percent that voted in 2013.
The problem with the rally, Russell said, came when Mello found himself embroiled in a national debate over whether Democrats should embrace an anti-abortion candidate.
Tom Perez, who is chairman of the national Democratic Party, released a statement that appeared to rebuke Mello as a Democratic candidate for his anti-abortion track record in the Nebraska Legislature, where he served eight years.
“Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” Perez said in a statement aimed at Mello. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
The debate over abortion — and not the Sanders rally — slowed Mello’s momentum that he had garnered in the wake of his strong showing in the primary election, Russell argued.
“If it had just been a get-out-the-vote rally with Sanders, that would have been great,” Russell said. “It became a problem when we found ourselves stuck in someone else’s conflict over party orthodoxy.”
As for Kleeb, she said she has no regrets. She argued that Democrats have to take some chances in this state if they plan to win races.
She said she would focus her attention on trying to determine why the Democratic base didn’t turn out in greater numbers in Omaha. She also said she will now turn her attention to recruiting candidates to run in state and local races in 2018.
The top race will likely be the Omaha-based 2nd District congressional race as Democrats try to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a freshman lawmaker.
Several Democrats are said to be eyeing the race, including Mello and former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford, who lost to Bacon in 2016. In addition, Kara Eastman, who is the head of a nonprofit group known as Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, is considering a bid.
Correction: Jane Kleeb was misquoted regarding Democrats looking in the mirror in a previous version of this story.