Blue Wind on a Red Prairie


Nebraska is one of the reddest of red states. It hasn’t voted statewide for a Democrat for President in over fifty years. So how can the minority party rise from the mat and become relevant in state politics? Enter Jane Fleming Kleeb. She feel in love with a Nebraska rancher and congressional candidate, married and moved there, led the successful state resistance that blocked the Keystone Pipeline, and now she’s been elected the chair of the state Democratic Party. Can this progressive issue activist change her party’s fortunes?

The Backstory:

Nebraska, once the home of fiery prairie populist William Jennings Bryan, is heavily conservative and Republican today.  That said, as the Almanac of American Politics writes “it is also a small enough community that attractive Democrats can win high office.”  Not so long ago, the state had two Democratic US Senators, Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson, with Democrats holding the governorship before 1998.  Those days are long gone.  Barely a quarter of elected officials in the state’s nominally non-partisan legislature are Democrats and the only elected position of note in the state is held by a Democrat is the Omaha area congressional district.

About the Film:

So how does a party actually rebuild itself when it’s a small minority in a seemingly one party state?  In the plains west, George McGovern, discharged from the air force after World War II, began to travel South Dakota, eventually helping what had been a tiny party to control all the state’s seats in Congress.  But is something like that possible today, when so much of politics at the state and local level mimics the national ideological divisions?  Does anything about the old slogan ”all politics is local” apply anymore in this kind of a comeback?

Enter Jane Fleming Kleeb.  The daughter of anti-choice parents in Florida and later the head of the national the Young Democrats in Washington D.C., she met and fell in love with a charismatic Nebraska rancher with a Yale History PhD, on his way to almost capturing his state’s western congressional district, one of the most conservative in the country.  He lost, but they got married, and she moved to his home state.  But once a political organizer, always a political organizer.  She began organizing ranchers, more often than not conservative Republicans, against the efforts of the Keystone pipeline to cross their land – and she stopped the pipeline from coming into Nebraska.  Then she started a progressive organization, Bold Nebraska, to keep fighting on a number of issues.  And finally, after taking part in the Bernie Sanders campaign, she decided that the state Democratic party wasn’t taking grassroots organizing seriously, satisfied with staying in their Omaha and Lincoln bases – so she ran to head the state party.  And she won.

Now she’s cross-crossing the state, visiting gatherings no matter how small or isolated, speaking anywhere she’s invited, trying to put life into her party.  And trying to figure out just how to balance being an issue activist and the official head of a state political party.  This film tags along on she drives the state, looking to change things.

About the Filmmakers: 

Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, and Paul Stekler have been responsible for some of the most respected political documentaries of the past twenty years, bringing an anthropological perspective to the way Americans practice politics. Their work is known for engaging stories and memorable characters, with large dollops of humor and provocative points of view. Vote for Me: Politics in America, a four-hour PBS series on electoral politics and American culture, won a Peabody and a duPont-Columbia Journalism Award. Most recently, Getting Back to Abnormal, their look at race and politics in post-Katrina New Orleans, was shown on PBS’ premier documentary series POV. Other credits include Stekler’s George Wallace: Settin’ The Woods on Fire and Alvarez and Kolker’s People Like Us: Social Class in America and The Anti-Americans.

Post-Election Update:

Donald Trump won the state easily with 60% to Hillary Clinton’s 34%.

Clinton won just two counties in the entire state and just barely — Douglas County (Lincoln) by a little over 3000 votes, and Lancaster County (Omaha) by just 78 votes.

Congressman Brad Ashford, the lone Democratic in a state or federal office in Nebraska, lost his Omaha based House seat by about 5500 votes, 49% to 47%.