This is the third post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where I take a deep look at one closely contested 2020 House district. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the State and District 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what insight the district can give into larger 2020 House race.
District: Nebraska 2nd
Current Representative: Don Bacon
Cook 2020 Projection: Leans Republican
Sabato 2020 Projection: Toss Up
OVERVIEW OF STATE & DISTRICT
Nebraska — crimson red and socially conservative — will host one of the most competitive elections for the 2020 House. Squeezed onto its eastern border is the second congressional district, Nebraska Democrats’ only real shot at federal representation.
Because Nebraska splits its presidential electoral votes by congressional district (one of only two states, along with Maine, to do so), the second district is often a target of presidential campaigns. Barack Obama’s campaign manager said Omaha was his “personal favorite target”. In a close presidential election, this one electoral vote could be the tiebreaker — pushing one candidate from 269 electoral college votes to the 270 needed to win. Obama is the only presidential candidate to successfully isolate one of the Nebraska’s electoral votes since the state adopted the Congressional District Method in 1992. In fact, this is the only electoral vote any Democrat has received from Nebraska since Lyndon Johnson carried the state in his 486-52 electoral blowout in 1962. Before that it was FDR in 1936.
Today, the governor and entire federal delegation are Republican. Of the current executive office holders, only one, the District 2 Public Service Commissioner, ran as a Democrat. Nebraska Democrats know that most of the state is out of reach. If they are to win federal representation, their hope is in district two.
The district is centered around Omaha and comprises all of Douglas County and a portion of Sarpy County. Obama’s 2008 victory spurred a Republican redistricting (or gerrymander) of the second district in 2011. They replaced the more liberal city of Bellevue and the Offutt Air Force Base in eastern Sarpy with the more rural, conservative suburbs of western Sarpy. And while this partisan redistricting did help them hold onto the congressional seat in 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2018, there was a lapse in 2014 when Democrat Brad Ashford ousted Republican Terry Lee. A more ruthless Republican party could have gerrymandered the district to give themselves a 96% chance of victory, but that would likely have been struck down in court.
Democrats know it’s going to be a battle if they want to take the district from Republicans. A former director for the state Democratic Party explained the party dynamic in Nebraska to Politico: “Republicans have been very successful in defining Democrats culturally and socially in Nebraska.” “They’ve defined us as snowflakey, that we want to raise taxes and redistribute wealth.”
Data: Daily Kos
Eighty two percent of Nebraska’s Second District’s residents are white, compared to 70% of the country. This translates to small black (9%) and Latino (5%) populations, two core demographic groups for the Democratic Party. The district is also well educated — 39% have bachelors compared with 31% of the country. And the district’s high density reflects that it is centered around Omaha City. White, suburban and well educated — NE-02 looks like the districts that has been trending blue and were crucial to Democrats flipping the House in 2018.
RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY
Data: Daily Kos
Obama carried the district in 2008 by 1.2%, but Romney flipped it in 2012 with a healthy 7.1% margin. The district swung back about 5% in 2012, with Trump only carrying it by 2.2%. Like many suburban, educated districts, NE-02 voters liked Romney in 2012 but swung away from the Trump’s rhetoric and disposition in 2016. And while this swing may not have been enough to tip the district to Democrats, it brought them within about 2%.
The trend is different, though, when looking at House results. While the races have been consistently tight, there is no obvious trend toward one party. In 2014, moderate Democrat Brad Ashford won the district by 3.3% with the district voting 9% more Democratic than the nation overall (measured by the House Popular Vote). Ashford lost the next year to Republican Don Bacon as the district voted in line with the country — favoring the Republican by about 1%. In 2018, Don Bacon won re-election by 2% over proud progressive Kara Eastman — with NE-02 voting 11% more Republican than the nation as a whole.
What Happened in 2018
Heading into the 2018 midterms, incumbent Republican Don Bacon did not face a primary challenger. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Primary, Kara Eastman and Brad Ashford were running one of the most contentious primaries in the nation.
Eastman, the founder of a local nonprofit and political unknown before the election cycle, ran as (to employ the overused but useful term) an unapologetic progressive. Her platform echoed that of the Bernie Sanders campaign — Medicare for All, free public college for families making under $125,000, a $15 federal minimum wage. Her theory of how to flip the district: turn out the Democratic base and low propensity voters. People do not cross party lines, so don’t waste time and money reaching out to moderate Republicans.
Brad Ashford was the Democratic establishment’s man. He represented the district from 2015 to 2016, but lost the 2016 election against Donald (Don) Bacon. The Party thought that he could appeal to and swing moderate Republicans and independents. Back in his days in the Nebraska Legislature where he served from 1987 to 1995 and 2007 to 2015, he, in fact, was a Republican. He flipped to the Democratic Party in 2010 and then registered as an Independent in 2013. Unlike Eastman, he said Medicare for All was politically infeasible, instead supporting incremental steps like a public option to buy into Medicare. He did not want to fully repeal the Republican tax bill, wanted to slowly raise the minimum wage, reaching $15 by 2026 and highlighted his “ability to find solutions…consensus building instead of partisan politics.”
The primary was a contest between two wings of the party: the moderate, bipartisan, reach across the aisle, incrementalist wing and the progressive, appeal to the base, big idea, practicality out the window wing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly (but maddeningly for some), the Democratic Party’s committee to elect House members, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), weighed in on Ashford’s behalf. Eastman says that after weeks of the DCCC telling here they were unlikely to intervene, the committee put Ashford on its Red to Blue program. The program signals to donors who to give to and is a de-facto endorsement. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (then mayor of South Bend, Indiana) supported and fundraised for Ashford. He implied that Eastman was not electable, saying “If you’re a committed progressive, you want to support the most committed progressive who can win”. Meanwhile, the state party and Douglas County Democratic Parties remained officially neutral, scuffled about under the table support for Ashford and a contentious debate over party officials endorsing candidates.
But while tension grew, it never spilled over into visible animosity between Ashford and Eastman. The primary race was focused more on policy and leadership style. Neither candidate drafted negative ads or hit the opposition too hard. The most contentious part of their debates centered on their different vision for healthcare.
As of the March 31, the last filing deadline before the May 15 primary, Ashford had outraised Eastman $535,000 to $320,000. Nobody really expected that Eastman had much of a shot — on election day, the betting website PredictIt had Ashford as a 90% favorite. But, in an election night that shocked media and election watchers across the nation, Eastman defeated Ashford by about 3%.
Progressives celebrated; strategic Democrats grumbled; Republicans cheered;. Election forecasting site, Sabato’s Crystal Ball wrote “the NRCC got what it wanted and the DCCC didn’t.” The Crystal Ball changed NE-02’s rating from “Toss Up” to “Leans Republican”, apparently agreeing with the committees that Eastman was a less formidable challenger than Ashford.
Eastman received a call from Senator Bernie Sanders the night of her primary victory, helping solidify the narrative that she’s in the Sander’s wing of the party. But the party establishment came around, as did Brad Ashford, giving her their endorsements and placing her on the “Red to Blue” list.
The general campaign was, to put it bluntly, less exciting than the Democratic primary. Eastman continued to broadcast her progressive message and Don Bacon ran as a typical Republican. He emphasized tax cuts and his fight against ‘government takeover of healthcare’, he opposed abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger and, according to FiveThirtyEight, had voted in line with Trump 98% of the time. He argued that Eastman was too extreme for Nebraska’s Second District, saying “These views would work well in San Francisco or New York City but not Omaha.”
Bacon received much more support from the Republican establishment than Eastman did from Democrats. The Congressional Leadership Fund (A Super PAC affiliated with previous Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) spent $1,397,000 on the race, mostly on ads attacking Eastman and the ‘liberal elite’. A particularly…um…interesting ad attacked her for studying to be a sex therapist and her college band “Pieces of Fuck”: “While Eastman was dropping F-bombs, Don Bacon was serving in the air force.” Meanwhile, the House Majority PAC (Nancy Pelosi’s PAC) invested $0 and the DCCC contributed $90,000 to a media buy, a paltry sum compared to Republicans nearly $1.5 million. But there was still plenty of money to go around — Eastman pulled $2.6 million, out-raising Bacon by about $10,000. An impressive feat for a first-time candidate in a competitive race against an incumbent.
In the end, though, it was not enough. Going into the election, FiveThirtyEight gave Bacon a 4/7 and Eastman a 3/7 shot at winning the election. Bacon prevailed with a slim 2% margin, defeating Eastman 51% to 49%.
It’s impossible to know if a different, less polarizing candidate could have tipped the scale in Democrats favor. But that’s what election analyst Nathaniel Rakich argued the day after Eastman won the primary, writing that “Ashford would have probably bought Democrats a few extra percentage points” and that “There’s plenty of evidence that candidates closer to the ideological poles do worse than moderate ones.” But Eastman’s team would likely contest this, pointing out that some more gung-ho support from the Democratic establishment could have closed the 2% gap.
Turnout was high for a midterm year, dropping only about 11% from the 2016 presidential race. Eastman was likely correct in her assessment that the Democratic base would turn out. The problem for her, though, is that the Republican base turned out too.
If Eastman’s theory that an unabashed progressive would improve Democratic turnout more than Republican’s, her numbers would have improved more in Douglas Country than in Sarpy County, given that the pool of Democrats is larger in the former. This didn’t happen. Bacon improved upon his 2016 margins in both the more Democratic Douglas County and the more Republican Sarpy County — closing the Democratic lead in Douglas from 3.8% to 3% and widening the Republican advantage in Sarpy from 25.1% to 26%.
Gubernatorial results in Douglas County also run against Eastman’s theory. The Democratic candidate, Bob Krist, campaigned as a moderate focused on bipartisan issues. He won Douglas with 108,235 votes to his opponent’s 96,120 — a margin of 6%. His vote total was about 3,000 greater than Eastman’s and his margin was about 3% wider. It looks like about 3,000 voters in Douglas County voted for Krist and not for Eastman. Perhaps a more moderate candidate like Brad Ashford could have won over these voters and closed the gap.
Finally, relative to the National House Popular Vote, 2018 was a particularly bad year for NE-02 Democrats. The district voted 10.6% more Republican than the nation. Compare this to 0.4% more Republican in 2016, 9% more Democratic in 2014 and 2.8% more Republican in 2012. 2018 featured a heavy swing toward the Republican relative to the national environment. It could have been Eastman’s style; it could have been national Democratic antipathy; it could have been baked in by partisanship. We’ll never know for sure, but the upcoming 2020 race will be illuminating.
The 2020 primary will again feature Eastman and Ashford. This time, though, Eastman’s opponent is Ann Ashford, a local “attorney, human resources professional, and healthcare leader” and the wife of Brad Ashford. Like her husband, Ms. Ashford is a recent convert to the Democratic party, making the switch in 2016 because “they truly became the big tent party”. Though her website doesn’t have a policy platform, it looks like she will be running as a moderate, telling The Omaha World Herald, “I think that today’s environment has become so splintered because everybody says, ‘I’m going to fight,’ and I don’t understand that.” “If we continue to fight, we’re going to see the same non-results that we see today.”
If she does run as a consensus seeking moderate, the race may have a similar dynamic to that of 2018. Democratic primary voters will again have to decide which candidate best represents their values and which has a better chance of winning the general. And, if these are in conflict, which priority outweighs the other. In 2018 primary voters voted against the national party’s practicality, but Eastman’s 2018 loss may have changed the calculus for some voters.
Another possible boost for Ashford is the state Democratic Party’s decision to switch from a presidential caucus system to a primary. Presidential primaries draw out a more moderate constituency than caucuses, as only the most invested voters (who are often the most partisan) show up for an hours long caucus. And as these primary voters would also be voting on down ballot races, notably NE-02. This more moderate voting pool could tip Ashford over the edge in a close primary.
Incumbent Don Bacon has also filed for re-election and, as of now, does not face a primary challenge. That means that while Democrats are tussling and spending their money in the primary, Representative Bacon will be stockpiling his cash. If the Democratic primary is expensive and contentious, Bacon will enter the general election with a bruised opponent and a full bank account.
The first quarter fundraising numbers, which report fundraising through March 31, look best for Bacon. He raised $371,000 and has $296,000 Cash on Hand. Eastman raised only $40,000 and has $72,000 cash on hand. Ann Ashford raised $36,000 with $24,000 cash on hand. Fundraising is only one sign of support and its importance is generally overstated, but the Democratic numbers don’t show either candidate pulling away or point to much voter enthusiasm. Below is a chart comparing NE-02 fundraising to the rest of the 2020 battleground districts.
The national parties both have their eyes on NE-02. The DCCC named it among its top targets for 2019-2020” and the NRCC put it on its “Patriot Program”, indicating that both parties will likely be giving their candidate significant support come the general election. The NRCC has already started going after Bacon’s possible opponents, attacking Eastman for supporting “AOC’s cow ban” and calling Ashford’s fundraising haul a “LOL-inducing 36k”.
This trollish behavior indicates that the NRCC knows Representative Bacon is in danger. But they may be getting ahead of themselves. Before the general, there is a year’s worth of Democratic primary that will be another insightful peek into the Democratic Party — exposing the Party’s priorities, divisions and the message it will deliver to 2020 voters.
LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE
The Party Still (Usually) Decides
Of the 41 Congressional primary candidates the DCCC endorsed in 2018, only 2 lost their primaries — a success rate of 95%. Compare this to two prominent progressive groups, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, who had primary success rates of 37% and 31%, respectively. The DCCC’s candidates also had a much better track record in general elections, winning 46% compared to Our Revolution’s 14% and Justice Democrats’ 5% success rates. Notably, the two Congressional candidates — Kara Eastman from NE-02 and Dana Balter from NY-24 — who snuck by the DCCC in the primaries both lost their general election. The big caveat here is that the DCCC usually endorses the strongest candidate in the field while Our Revolution and Justice Democrats are more likely to endorse candidates who align with their policy objectives even if their path to victory looks more challenging.
Demographics Are Not Always Destiny
NE-02 is a wealthy, suburban, white community. It looks like the archetypal district that has been steadily trending blue in recent years. But recent elections show that NE-02 has bounced around, not showing a clear drift towards either party. Maybe that’s because Eastman was too liberal, maybe it’s because Bacon is especially popular, maybe Trump is popular in the district. No matter the reason, it’s safe to say that just because a district’s demographics look like it should be trending towards one party does not mean it always will.
Structural Changes Deserve Attention
Nebraska Democrats’ decision to change the Presidential nomination process from a caucus to a primary could determine close down ballot elections. Other upcoming structural changes like the upcoming census and corresponding redistricting will change how the 435 House seats are apportioned among the 50 states and how they are divided within those states. States with a growing population (California, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Texas) will likely gain seats while states with a shrinking or stagnant population (Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia) may lose seats. These changes will alter both the composition of the House of Representatives and the distribution of Electoral College votes and deserve more attention.