January 2, 2018



Voters of the Omaha metro area, get ready: You’re about to see a lot of political TV ads, receive a lot of mailers and encounter quite a few volunteers at your door or on your phone hoping to influence the outcome of the congressional election in Nebraska’s 2nd District.

Democrats are looking to pick up the 24 seats they need to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and their path to doing so takes them through Omaha.

Meanwhile, Republicans want to create enough of a firewall to hold on to their majority, and they’ve made it clear that keeping U.S. Rep. Don Bacon in his seat is part of the strategy.

“I think the 2nd District is one of the most competitive races in the country, and I think it’s a must-win for Democrats to get back to the majority,” said Nathan Gonzalez, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns.

In fact, he considers the seat representing Douglas County and western Sarpy County to be one of the top 20 most contested races in the country.

Voters will have two choices to make. In May, 2nd District Democrats will decide whether to send former Congressman Brad Ashford back for round two against Bacon or whether nonprofit executive Kara Eastman should take her first shot at the seat.

Then in November, voters will choose between the winner of the primary and Bacon.

And don’t expect to hear just from the candidates. National interest groups and both major political parties are likely to spend money and time trying to sway 2nd District voters.

Democrats appear to have history on their side. The president’s party nearly always loses seats in the House during a midterm election. So if that trend holds, the party of Republican President Donald Trump would be at a disadvantage going into 2018.

And Democrats are already working to increase that advantage here — the state party has hired a full-time staffer in the 2nd District to get voters to the polls for the eventual Democratic nominee.

Republicans, on the other hand, have the advantage of incumbency and of an uncontested primary. Bacon, a first-term congressman and retired brigadier general, has a campaign staff in place. And a political action committee affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan hired a full-time staffer in early 2017 for its own get-out-the-vote effort.

Several factors lead observers to see this as such a competitive seat in 2018.

One is simple voter registration: Republicans hold a voter registration lead of less than 15,000 over Democrats. With nearly 420,000 voters in the district — including just fewer than 100,000 independents — that advantage is negligible. And Bacon beat Ashford in 2016 by just 1 percentage point.

Add to that the fact that the best time to knock off an incumbent is during the first term. Plus, both parties have identified suburban voters as an important constituency to woo in 2018 — and the 2nd District has plenty of those.

So both parties will be closely watching Omaha.

But in the end, winning elections comes down to a basic formula, said University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Randall Adkins: a good candidate who can raise money and finds a message that resonates.

“It’s a good year for the Democrat to run in a district like this,” he said, and the question is “Can they raise the money and can they find the message?”

In terms of money, Ashford and Eastman have both lagged behind Bacon, though the incumbent started fundraising much earlier than them.

After the last quarter, which ended Oct. 15, Ashford had $100,000 in the bank, Eastman had $50,000 and Bacon had nearly $500,000. The next campaign finance report, which covers the quarter ending Sunday, comes out next month.

As far as message, Ashford, a former longtime state legislator and one-term congressman, will be telling voters that he has “always been a voice for progress, a voice for reason,” said his campaign strategist, Ian Russell.

Eastman said her overarching message to voters will be that she wants to bring Nebraska values and consistency to the congressional seat. She said her campaign is “what people are looking for right now, which is real change that they can get behind in a big way.”

She’s also taken some positions to the left of Ashford — most notably supporting a proposal to expand Medicare to cover all Americans.

And from the Bacon camp, campaign manager Mary Jane Truemper said voters will hear a lot about his accomplishments, integrity and leadership during his first term and in his military career.

She said Bacon is “an energetic and enthusiastic candidate. He’s the best asset to this campaign.”

Of course, each of the candidates will face criticism.

Voters are likely to hear that Ashford is a flip-flopper because he’s changed his mind on issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, which he previously supported but recently said he opposes. But, Russell said, his campaign will argue that Ashford is willing to compromise, and changes his mind given new information — but he doesn’t compromise on his values.

Eastman’s first challenge, according to Adkins, will be to prove to primary voters and donors that she has the experience to be competitive in the general election.

Eastman said she can do that.

“This isn’t the time for complacency,” she said. “This isn’t the time for resting on our laurels. We need somebody who is going to work for this seat, and that person is me.”

As for Bacon, Democrats will attempt to paint him as a follow-the-party-line Republican and try to turn that into a liability.

“It’s a very clear case between a guy who’s always stuck with his values and always pushed for progress versus Don Bacon, who’s been nothing but a lockstep rubber stamp for Donald Trump and Paul Ryan,” Russell said.

Bacon has voted with Trump and the Republican House leadership 96.6 percent of the time, according to the news website FiveThirtyEight, which tracks political polls and other statistics.

He has taken a moderate position on at least one issue: He has said he supports the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows young people brought to the country illegally as children to live and work in the U.S. He did not, however, sign on to a letter with 34 other Republican House members urging a fix for the program.

Truemper said the Bacon campaign’s response to the criticism is that Bacon makes the decisions that are best for the district.

“He puts the 2nd District and the voters at the forefront,” she said. “He’s not anybody’s rubber stamp or puppet.”

Now it’s time for the campaigns and others to spend money and effort getting their messages in front of voters, so expect to see lots of advertisements, mailings and door flyers in the 19 weeks before the May 15 primary.