Bold Nebraska -- once an obscure advocacy group in search of a cause -- found purpose as a determined matador battling the Keystone XL pipeline.
Arguably the most infamous pipeline project in the world, the Keystone XL made Bold Nebraska a fixture in print and broadcast news. It gave the grassroots organization a bogeyman to rally against and a platform to stand on as it raised money and inspired action to further the fight.
When President Barack Obama rejected the cross-border permit required to build the $8 billion project earlier this year, he handed Bold Nebraska and its allies a victory that was years in the making.
He also swept away the nonprofit’s principal issue.
Only time will tell whether Bold Nebraska will be able to continue its role as an organizing powerhouse and continue to attract donors to support its causes.
“That is what put them on the map and gave them a national audience," said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "It’s going to be a little more difficult to duplicate that with other issues.”
Bold Nebraska has two full-time staff members in addition to founder and Director Jane Kleeb, a small army of followers across the state and ties to numerous national and international environmental groups and Native tribal activists.
Nebraska Republican National Committeeman J.L. Spray of Lincoln compared it to the Tea Party. Both groups express their opinions with microphones and rallies, but outside of their pet issues they lack a central framework on which to build a lasting structure, he said.
“Is it a cult of personality around Jane Kleeb? Is it a single issue? Or is it some giant movement that is going to take off? I don’t know,” Spray said.
Politics abhors a vacuum, he said, so if Bold Nebraska can find a new niche to fill, it could have a future. But it could also find itself fighting for attention in an already crowded field.
But Kleeb said she foresees it being a champion of energy issues in general and said the group is creating new alliances. Bold Nebraska also will be involved in such hot-button issues as calling for Gov. Pete Ricketts to be more welcoming to refugees fleeing violence in places like Syria.
On the energy front, Kleeb said, Bold Nebraska will push for the creation of a state carbon reduction plan to meet the EPA’s new Clean Power Plan regulations that seek to lower pollution from coal and gas-powered electricity.
Kleeb said the group opposes Nebraska joining other states in a regional approach to carbon reduction because of fears Nebraska will continue to produce cheap electricity with coal and sell it to other states in exchange for carbon credits, allowing it to meet EPA requirements.
She is in discussions with the Nebraska Farm Bureau to push for the EPA to recognize the role farming and ranching plays in carbon sequestration, as well as pushing for greater emphasis on small clean-energy projects like solar panels and community-owned wind farms.
Kleeb said Bold Nebraska also will organize for small businesses with progressive values, giving them a single voice and more leverage when dealing with state lawmakers.
While she previously said she planned to keep Bold in Nebraska, she has decided the time is right to create a coalition with like-minded organizers in other states to fight energy issues, including opposing fracking waste injection wells and construction of oil pipelines like the proposed Bakken Pipeline, which starts in North Dakota and runs 1,134 miles across South Dakota and Iowa before ending at Patoka, Illinois.
Those big plans will require big money. One of Bold Nebraska's challenges will be translating its funding pitches from opposing the Keystone XL to a broader environmental platform.
Kleeb started Bold Nebraska with the help of a donation from prominent Omaha Democrat Dick Holland. But his donation was seed money and has dwindled annually.
During the height of the pipeline fight, it had no trouble attracting donors. The group reported about $455,000 in total contributions and grants in its 2013 tax filing. That included $90,000 from San Francisco-based Tides Foundation and $165,000 from Washington, D.C.-based New Venture Fund.
About 90 percent of Bold’s donors are small contributors from Nebraska, but the remaining 10 percent gave about half the total money the organization received annually.
Kleeb lives near Hastings and regularly travels to Omaha and Lincoln for rallies, meetings and fundraising events.
She said Bold Nebraska gets checks in the mail with postmarks from across the state, but the majority of in-state donations come from people who live in Holt and York counties, bastions of pipeline resistance, as well as Omaha and Lincoln.
Fundraising remained steady in 2014 and 2015, with about 60 percent of funds coming from small donors and 40 percent from large donors, Kleeb said.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chairman Vince Powers said it would be a mistake to underestimate Bold Nebraska.
“I think you have to recognize that Bold Nebraska is a successful organization,” he said. “They have a track record you would pay attention to going forward.”
Kleeb also raises money for the Nebraska Easement Action Team and the New Energy Voter political action committee.
The action team, which in 2013 reported $79,000 in contributions, was used primarily to fund legal costs and help landowners negotiate easement terms in the pipeline battle. Kleeb said that team will continue to exist and could play a role in an expanded coalition with landowners in other states looking to fund legal strategy.
Plans for the New Energy Voter PAC are less concrete. It reported about $33,000 in receipts for the 2014 election year, during which it endorsed political candidates in both local and statewide races.