Primary upset will test progressives' appeal to voters

Kara Eastman with supporters in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (Photo: Nati Harnik/AP)

In the wake of the 2016 election, many progressive Democrats looked at the defeats the party had suffered and offered a theory: Democrats were losing, particularly in red areas, because they were offering a watered-down message and not standing for bold proposals voters could get excited about. In conservative districts where Democrats had suffered loss after loss, they believed success could be found by touting progressive policies that would appeal to working-class people who felt moderate Democratic campaigns weren’t offering them an appealing alternative.

That theory will be put to the test in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District in November, following an upset primary win Tuesday.

Kara Eastman, who led a nonprofit and was a board member of a community college, defeated former Rep. Brad Ashford for the Democratic nomination. Ashford, a former Republican with a moderate voting record who lost his seat in 2016, had the full backing of the Democratic establishment, earning a spot on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of “Red to Blue” candidates and receiving donations from the PAC of Democratic House leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, but fell short in an attempt at a rematch with Republican Don Bacon.

Election materials for Democrats Kara Eastman and Brad Ashford. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

Eastman ran on a full-throated progressive message. She frankly endorsed Medicare For All, a program that would provide government health care for every American, a $15 minimum wage, higher corporate taxes and abortion rights.

“I’m tired of hearing Democrats don’t have a backbone,” said Eastman in a campaign ad. “That we don’t stand for anything. That changes now. Let me be clear: I’m the only candidate for Congress that stands for universal health care and ending tax breaks for millionaires that threaten the middle class. I will fight to protect Medicare and Social Security, and always defend a woman’s right to choose.”

The second district, in the eastern part of the state that includes Omaha, is more liberal than the rest of the state and has seen tight races in recent years. In 2014, Ashford beat incumbent Republican Lee Terry by three points. Two years later, Ashford lost his seat to Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, by a single percentage point while Trump won the district over Hillary Clinton by two. Barack Obama won the district by a point in 2008, but it swung back to Mitt Romney by seven points four years later.

Following the results, Bacon — who ran unopposed — complimented Eastman as genuine but said he doubted her platform would be successful in November, telling reporters “I don’t think liberal works in this district.” Neutral prognosticators agree with Bacon so far, as the nonpartisan Center for Politics shifted its Crystal Ball Rating for the race from “Toss-Up” to “Lean Republican” following the primary result. There is no current polling on the general election race.

Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Eastman has already received pledges of support from Ashford and the Nebraska Democratic Party. She credited her field team for the win and said that the general election campaign would maintain a focus of going door-to-door and talking to voters.

“I’m going to continue spending time in the community talking to voters and asking them what their concerns are,” said Eastman in remarks following her primary win, “because in the general election, there are a lot more concerns, right? Because what we’ve found is we all are concerned about some of the things that are happening in our country and people are looking for strong, positive leadership, and sometimes they’re looking for something they don’t even know is out there.”

Crystal Rhoades, chairwoman of the Douglas County Democratic Party and wife of Eastman’s campaign manager, told Yahoo News that she didn’t view Eastman’s positions as radical and believed the candidate understood the values of the district. Rhoades said the previous strategy of running conservative Democrats in an attempt to appeal to a district where registration leans Republican had failed and that the path to victory could be by supporting a “true-blue, never-been-a-Republican, full-blown Democrat.”

“The turnout between Democrats and Republicans is actually pretty even,” said Rhoades. “What we have seen is that Democratic turnout has been lower than it should be and we believe that the reason it has been suppressed is we kept running an extremely conservative Democrat. We believe running a Democrat who is more progressive will actually increase that Democratic turnout and propel her to success in the general election.”

Even if Eastman is able to deliver her message and turn out Democratic voters, the most daunting roadblock is likely her opponent. Bacon may have a potential weakness due to the fact he voted for both the poorly received Obamacare repeal attempt and unpopular Republican tax plan, but according to Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, he’s still a great fit for the district.

“Don Bacon has an outstanding profile for this congressional district,” said Landow. “He’s a sharp guy, he’s got a great resume, he’s former military and so is most of Sarpy County. It’s a real uphill battle for Eastman to win this thing.”

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