Nebraska Democrats vie for competitive 2nd district seat

May 14, 2018
FILE - In this April 5, 2018, photo, Kara Eastman and Brad Ashford, two Democrats vying to challenge 2nd District House incumbent Don Bacon, R-Neb., pose for a photo in Omaha, Neb. Democratic and independent voters will pick one as the party's nominee in the Tuesday, May 15, primary election. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nearly two years after Democrats lost their only seat in Nebraska’s congressional delegation, two candidates are clamoring for the chance to win it back in a general election that could see strong Democratic gains across the country.

The Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District has changed party hands twice in the past two elections, and Democrats Brad Ashford and Kara Eastman are optimistic they can defeat first-term Republican U.S. Rep. Don Bacon. Democratic and independent voters will pick one as the party’s nominee in Tuesday’s primary election.

Ashford, who won the seat in 2014 but lost it to Bacon two years later, said he would seek to build relationships with congressional Republicans as he did in his first term and focus on policy while minimizing partisanship. Ashford was a Democrat in Congress but has previously been registered as both a Republican and independent.

“The Democratic Party has some really great ideas, and I agree with a lot of their vision,” he said. “But I also believe small businesses need to grow and be able to grow. We do not need to be overregulated.”

Ashford said working with Republicans would help Democrats pass measures that are important to the Omaha area, including legislation to increase access to health care. He said he would support expanding Medicare so the general population could qualify at an earlier age, while still allowing the private sector to play a role.

“The solutions in Congress are at the center,” he said. “They aren’t in the ideological left or right. I’m not particularly interested in going back to Congress and fighting over whether we have absolutely no (Affordable Care Act) at all or a single-payer system. It gets people excited, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”

Eastman pitches herself as the progressive alternative, a longtime social worker who has run shelters for the homeless and domestic violence victims. She now manages the Omaha Health Kids Alliance, a nonprofit that works to reduce the threat of lead poisoning in homes with children.

Despite Ashford’s name recognition, Eastman has managed to raise nearly $356,000 as of last month, mostly from small donors. She also has worked to energize the party’s base in the tossup district, which includes Omaha and several Republican-leaning suburbs. Ashford raised almost $571,000 during the same period, while Bacon collected more than $1.47 million.

Eastman said the 2016 election shows that voters want political outsiders. Before Ashford won, the seat had been held by Republican Lee Terry, who served eight terms despite several serious challenges from Democrats.

“The narrative we play in this district is that it will take a conservative Democrat to beat a Republican incumbent,” Eastman said. “But we run those conservative Democrats, and they lose.”

Eastman said she would focus on education, health care and environmental issues if elected. She said she has opposed the Keystone XL pipeline from the outset. Ashford initially supported it but later changed his mind, saying more needed to be done to address climate change.

On the campaign trail, Eastman tells voters she was inspired to join the race because of her mother’s struggles to afford prescription drugs while battling cancer.

“I just want people to have health care,” she said. “Of course I’d be willing to compromise, but compromise doesn’t mean compromising the people you’re supposed to be serving.”

The eventual Democratic nominee will face an uphill battle against Bacon and will have to drive big turnout in Omaha to offset the Republican-heavy suburbs, said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and former Democratic strategist.

Landow said Ashford and Eastman hold similar views on most issues, and the differences are “more about presentation than policy differences.” Ashford has greater name recognition than Eastman because of his previous stint in Congress and the Nebraska Legislature, which gives him an edge, Landow said.

“They both have run credible campaigns,” he said. “Typically in a race like this, you have one really strong candidate and one really weak candidate. But Eastman has run a strong campaign and she’s raised a respectable amount of money.”


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