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Former Rep. Brad Ashford Faces Primary in Comeback Bid

Democratic primary pits Ashford against a political newcomer

Nebraska Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford, who lost re-election in 2016 after serving one term, is seeking a comeback this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Nebraska Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford, who lost re-election in 2016 after serving one term, is seeking a comeback this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

On the surface, the Democratic primary in Nebraska’s 2nd District had the makings of a bitter intraparty battle, with a moderate onetime congressman facing off against a liberal, female political newcomer. 

But the contest between former Rep. Brad Ashford and nonprofit CEO Kara Eastman hasn’t gotten the same attention as some other primaries that have morphed into proxy fights for the soul of the Democratic Party.

That could be because “Nebraska Nice,” the state’s now defunct tourism motto, has extended to Tuesday’s primary.

“Maybe it hasn’t been as exciting because we’re not attacking each other,” Eastman said, when asked why the race hasn’t developed into a fierce fight.

Eastman and Ashford have known each other for some time, she said. Her daughter is close friends with Ashford’s niece, and Eastman sat down with the former congressman before launching her campaign in May of last year. Ashford jumped into the race for his old seat the following month.

That’s not to say Eastman hasn’t tried to distinguish herself from her opponent on a slew of issues. She has branded herself the true progressive in the race, noting in campaign materials that she is a “lifelong Democrat” — a nod to Ashford’s past as a Republican.

But Ashford’s team counters that he remains popular in the area and his moderate stances put him in line with the district he represented for one term before losing to Republican Don Bacon in 2016.

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Party support

Ashford has benefited from the backing of the national party and his former House colleagues. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added him to its Red to Blue program in January, giving him additional access to the group’s resources. He has also been endorsed by the political arm of the New Democrat Coalition and the Blue Dog PAC, which tend to back fiscally conservative Democrats.

A number of House Democrats have donated to Ashford’s campaign, and he raised $156,000 from committees alone, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Ashford, never renowned for being a prolific fundraiser, has raised $571,000 in total.

“I do think, in terms of resources, it’s made a difference,” Eastman said of her opponent’s support from the national party. She has raised $356,000 — the vast majority from individual donations.

Eastman runs the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, which focuses on improving the home environment and combating lead poisoning. Her mother’s battle with cancer, during which she faced exorbitant prescription drug prices, inspired Eastman to run for Congress.

She has been backed by liberal groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Justice Democrats, and the Working Families Party.

But she was disappointed that groups supporting pro-abortion rights women, like EMILY’s List, have not gotten involved in the primary. Eastman said she was initially in regular contact with EMILY’s List at the start of her campaign, but that communication stopped late last year. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

Eastman has aired a television ad in which she says she is the “only candidate for Congress who stands for universal health care and ending massive tax breaks for millionaires that threaten the middle class.”

She has also launched Spanish language radio ads and mailers to target the growing Latino population in South Omaha. Eastman spokeswoman Heather Aliano said women and young people are key to her coalition.

Ashford, a former member of the state’s unicameral Legislature, has aired two spots. One ad featured voters saying he was needed back in Congress, and the candidate saying he “won’t let Trump’s Washington put Nebraska’s future at risk.”

Ashford’s team contends he has not faced pushback amid a political environment that has often benefited outsiders.

“The base is not generally revolting against Democratic elected officials,” Ashford consultant Ian Russell said.

But the question for Ashford is how many Democratic primary voters will back Eastman, who supports a Medicare-for-All health care system, signaling they want the party to move to the left.

Eye on November

Adding Ashford to Red to Blue is a sign the DCCC views him as the candidate best positioned to win the general election. Having represented the district before, he has high name identification. And he is now able to tout accomplishments from after he lost re-election in 2016.

In his ads, Ashford highlights his role in bringing the Omaha Veterans Affairs Medical Center to the district. Funding for the new center was secured in the lame-duck session in December 2016, after he lost to Bacon. Expect to see a similar message if Ashford wins Tuesday.

“We don’t have to reboot for the general election,” Russell said. “We can keep talking about the issues that we’ve been talking about.”

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican.

Ashford was the only Democratic incumbent to be unseated by a Republican in 2016, losing to Bacon by 1 point, or just under 3,500 votes. A libertarian candidate drew 9,600 votes. President Donald Trump carried the district by 2 points.

Two years earlier, he was one of two Democratic challengers to unseat a sitting GOP congressman in what was a banner year for Republicans. But he was also competing against a flawed GOP incumbent then.

Democratic energy could boost Ashford this election cycle, but Republicans have already signaled they will work to protect Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, opened up an early field office in the 2nd District.

Ashford is expected to prevail Tuesday, but should Eastman win, one Democratic consultant noted that she would likely have to revamp her campaign for the general. She is not conducting traditional polling, relying instead on a field program that has focused on phone calls and canvassing.

Eastman’s support for Medicare-for-All could also be too liberal a stance in an area with scores of insurance jobs. But the candidate doesn’t see it as a problem.

“Health care is the No. 1 issue that I hear people talking about at the door,” she said, adding that Medicare-for-All legislation “just seems to make the most sense.”

If she loses Tuesday, Eastman said she would support the former congressman in November.

“I think we need a Democrat in that office,” she said. “I’m not running against Mr. Ashford. … I’m just running for our country.”

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