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How did the blue wave pass over Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District?

November 12, 2018

Before Nov. 6, progressive groups pointed to Kara Eastman as a case study for why the progressive wing of the Democratic Party can win in swing or even right-leaning districts.

Now, some establishment Democrats are pointing to her as a case study for why they can’t.

Eastman’s loss in a district that was once considered one of the best pickup opportunities for Democrats stands in contrast to Iowa’s 3rd District, right across the river, where Cindy Axne unseated Republican Rep. David Young.

Republicans, of course, argue that U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a former brigadier general with a reputation as a hard worker and a message of civility, is an effective representative who earned a victory.

But Democrats are discussing what lessons they should learn from Eastman’s loss to Bacon and what they should do in 2020.

“Given how close the race ended up being, it seems fair to wonder if (Eastman’s primary opponent) Brad Ashford would’ve closed the deal,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “However, there’s also this: Could Eastman have won if she had gotten more support from national Democrats? The race ended up being quite close. It’s impossible to actually know the answers to either of these questions, but it is something that both Eastman and national Democratic groups ought to mull over.”

When Eastman announced her candidacy, she was a little-known nonprofit executive who’d been elected to just one term in one public office, the Metropolitan Community College board. In the Democratic primary she faced Ashford, a former congressman and former Republican who leans conservative on economic issues and promotes bipartisanship.

Eastman’s strategy, as promoted by Douglas County Democratic Party Chairwoman Crystal Rhoades, was to write off appealing to moderate Republicans and instead try to inspire new Democrats to vote by embracing Bernie Sanders-type issues such as “Medicare for all,” debt-free college and raising the minimum wage. She drew relatively little support from national groups, and her campaign advisers — particularly Rhoades — publicly sparred with Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb.

Eastman also ran an atypical campaign in other ways. She hired key staffers with little experience in congressional campaigns, including her campaign manager, Rhoades’ husband, Ben Onkka. She listened less to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had supported Ashford in the primary, and more to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which aims to promote candidates who lean left on economic issues.

And as the results are counted it appears that Eastman lost by just under 3 percentage points, compared to Ashford’s 1-point loss in 2016 and 3-point win in 2014. More Democrats showed up to vote than in most midterms — but so did more Republicans.

Locally, Democrats had a good night — they flipped two legislative seats and ousted some high-profile incumbents, including former Mayor Hal Daub from the NU Board of Regents.

Nationally, 23 House candidates backed by a moderate group of House Democrats, the New Democratic caucus, flipped House seats to help gain the majority, according to a tally in the Washington Post, while not a single candidate endorsed by Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution captured a red seat.

Ideology

Eastman certainly took her share of criticism from within the party for her focus on encouraging more fervent Democrats to vote rather than reaching out to moderates.

“How can you possibly acquire a big enough base to win an election when you’re further to the left than 75 percent of the residents?” said Paul Landow, a Democrat and political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Elections are obviously about winning more votes than the opponents and you can’t do that by repelling the most people possible.”

Said Ian Russell, a D.C.-based political consultant who worked for Ashford: “You can’t add by subtracting. You can be a principled progressive, but you have to find a way to bring people in who are disgusted by Washington but don’t want to make it a referendum on a particular policy (like Medicare for all).”

But Rhoades rejects that theory, even after Eastman’s loss.

“The fact of the matter is this, people don’t cross the party line,” she said. “They don’t. They do not do it. It is always going to be a turnout game.”

University of Houston political science professor Elizabeth Simas compared Eastman to Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who fired up Democrats around the country in his quest to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz.

“I’m not sold on the idea that a more moderate Democrat would have yielded a different outcome,” she said. “He did incredibly well. He did better than any other statewide Democrat has done in a long time. ... At the end of the day, so many voters are just going to vote that party label and if the demographics of the district are against you, they’re against you.”

Rhoades and Russell both pointed to the same number: Eastman received about 102,000 votes in Douglas County, about 2,800 fewer than the more conservative Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Bob Krist. She received slightly more than Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jane Raybould. To Rhoades, that shows that Democrats across the ideological spectrum perform about the same. To Russell, it shows that a more moderate 2nd District candidate could have closed the gap.

Rhoades vs. Kleeb

The Eastman camp had regarded the Nebraska Democratic Party with distrust since the primary, when the state party brought in two national speakers for its annual fundraiser. Those speakers, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, also held a private fundraiser for Ashford. And Dingell voiced support for Ashford at the party event.

Kleeb said she was remaining neutral and the state party would support both candidates.

But then the national group that tries to elect Democrats to the house, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, put Ashford on its red-to-blue list, signaling to donors to give money to him.

By the time Eastman won the primary, she had firmly aligned herself with the Douglas County Democratic Party, relying on that group to do the things that the state party normally does.

Over the course of the campaign Rhoades and Kleeb publicly tangle d over resources, including access to detailed voter files, donations and a possible Bernie Sanders visit to Omaha.

Rhoades accuses Kleeb of “sabotaging” Eastman. Kleeb describes it as a difference in philosophies. Both said they’re not sure if they’ll be able to work together in the future.

Said Rhoades: “Right now the Democrats are fighting each other over the old paradigm versus the new. Do we come out of the closet as Democrats or not? The battle lines have been drawn. I feel confident that our party is going to work it out.”

Said Kleeb: “I clearly say we need all shades of blue at the table, versus Crystal saying we only need to run progressives.”

National Democrats

After the May primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not name Eastman to that same red-to-blue list until August.

And as House Speaker Paul Ryan’s political action committee, the Congressional Leadership Fund, hammered Eastman in television ads, national Democratic groups were absent from Omaha’s airwaves in the race.

In fact, the Democratic House Majority PAC reserved airtime for a commercial in the Omaha area’s 2nd Congressional District then diverted that money across the river, to southwest Iowa’s 3rd District.

And progressive groups, who backed Eastman in the primary, came in only at the end with a relatively small ad buy.

“CLF came in and the D-trip (DCCC) abandoned her. The progressive party abandoned us,” Rhoades said. “If you look nationally, a lot of these progressives, they lost by small margins. Maybe the fact that we were fighting with one hand behind our back because we were abandoned by the traditional leadership of our party, that certainly played into it.”

One of Eastman’s main backers, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, also pointed the finger at establishment Democrats.

“Kara’s defeat represents an unforced error by the DCCC, who counted her out and didn’t lift a finger to help her — when flipping less than 2 points would have resulted in a win,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green said in a statement.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t respond directly, but a spokesman said the group spent “six figures” on Eastman, including media training for Eastman and “almost $100,000” to help her pay for an ad. And Kleeb noted that the state party tried to help Eastman by opening field offices and hiring organizers in the district.

Swing district?

The district was rated “ lean Republican ” by many prognosticators. But Landow and Simas said they don’t see Nebraska’s 2nd District as a “swing” district. They described it as a Republican district that has had some brief blips of blue over the past several decades.

City Council President Ben Gray and County Board member Mike Boyle, both early Eastman supporters, pointed to the district makeup.

After the 2010 Census, the district that had once contained Douglas County and Bellevue was redistricted to have the western half of Sarpy County instead. That area is faster-growing and more conservative.

Boyle said he doesn’t think any Democrat could win in the current 2nd District, though Ashford won the district in 2014.

Gray didn’t go quite so far, but he did say: “As long as you’ve got Sarpy County in the mix, as long as you got the redistricting that favors Republicans, it’s going to be difficult for a Democrat to win.”

Now local Democrats will be poring over the results and debating the best way forward.

“They agree on the goals. They just disagree on how to get there,” said Tim Becker, who was chief of staff for former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. “The most obvious illustration of that is health care. The vast, vast majority of us are good people, Democrats and Republicans. We just disagree about how to get there.”

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