GOP attack ads and ‘Nebraska Nice’ fuel Don Bacon rematch with Kara Eastman

Ignored in 2018, Democrat now attracts millions in national party help

Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon faces a rematch against Kara Eastman, who came within 2 points of beating him in 2018. Both parties are spending heavily on the race this cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon faces a rematch against Kara Eastman, who came within 2 points of beating him in 2018. Both parties are spending heavily on the race this cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 14, 2020 at 6:00am

This is the third installment of “Blue wave survivors,” a series analyzing whether House Republicans who survived the 2018 blue wave that swept Democrats into control can win against the same opponents in 2020. Earlier installments looked at Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis and New York Rep. John Katko.

Corrected, Oct. 16 | As Republican Don Bacon seeks to defend his suburban House seat in Nebraska, national GOP groups have stepped in with a barrage of ads branding his Democratic opponent, Kara Eastman, a “radical socialist,” who “stands with violent rioters” and supports an “extreme health care plan.”

Those are the kinds of attacks that stuck in 2018, when Eastman, a nonprofit business consultant, first challenge Bacon for the Omaha-area seat and lost by 2 points, even amid historic gains by Democrats in suburbs across the country. 

Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, says his argument that Eastman is too liberal for the district will work again. 

“I have been blessed to have a far-left opponent two times in a row,” he told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview. 

But it is unclear whether this year’s voters will be convinced. 

As Democrats look to expand their spread into the suburbs, Nebraska’s 2nd District, which the national party largely ignored in 2018, has become a top target, attracting millions of dollars in outside spending from both parties.

Nebraska is one of two states that divide their Electoral College votes by congressional district, so the 2nd — the most left-leaning of the state’s three — is also getting attention in the race for the White House. 

Bacon is one of a handful of Republicans facing rematches from challengers who came close to unseating them in 2018. 

As election results are tallied in November, these contests, in areas where white, college-educated voters have been steadily defecting from the Trump-era GOP, will be among the first indicators of whether the blue wave that put the House under Democratic control two years ago will continue to gain strength. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 2nd District race a Toss-up

Eastman said she is expecting to get a boost from Republicans and moderates who aren’t happy with Bacon’s support of the Trump administration. 

“Voters were interested in trying something new with Donald Trump and now they see that this administration has not been good for them. It hasn’t been good for our economy and for our standing in the world,” she said. 

Moderate brand challenged

A mild-mannered former farm boy, Bacon describes himself as a “pragmatic conservative,” who believes in the concept of “Nebraska Nice” and brings those values to Washington.  

He credits that style with helping him win other competitive elections — in 2016, he unseated Democrat Brad Ashford by 1 point. Ashford, who has switched parties several times, endorsed Bacon last week. 

Now, Bacon said, he also has his record to run on, including his work to procure federal money to restore two military bases in the state damaged by flooding and his advocacy for the Department of Defense to award research money to the University of Nebraska. 

In Congress, he has also cultivated relationships with Democrats. He was a co-founder of the For Country Caucus, which consists of roughly two dozen members from both political parties, all veterans, trying to find areas of consensus.

But Bacon, like many of his Republican colleagues, has struggled to maintain a moderate brand with Trump in the White House. 

For much of the race, Bacon has embraced the president, who carried the district by 2 points in 2016. 

The Trump campaign has a strip mall campaign office a few doors down from Bacon’s and has sent surrogates to stump for him, including Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife, and Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law. 

But Bacon was among the first endangered Republicans to express disappointment with the president’s debate performance this month. 

“With the debate interrupting and name calling — Omaha doesn’t like that,” he told CQ Roll Call. 

A New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters from late September showed former Vice President Joe Biden with a 7-point lead in the district. 

Democratic momentum?

Eastman, a progressive who supports “Medicare for All,” has also recalibrated her campaign and put more energy into appealing to moderate voters. 

She’s done much of that work on the phone, logging hours in personal calls after she grounded her campaign amid the coronavirus pandemic. Those calls often start with people telling her they have seen the attack ads and they don’t like her ideas. 

“When we start talking, they realize that we agree on most things,” she said. 

Paul Landow, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said Eastman has clearly matured as a candidate. “It’s not that she has changed her positions, she has learned to explain them in a way that has a broader appeal,” he said. 

Eastman hasn’t yet disclosed her third-quarter fundraising numbers. But she has been able to maintain a constant presence on cable television with slickly produced ads that contrast her family’s struggle to pay medical bills after her mother’s death from cancer with Bacon’s “Hell, yes!” vote to repeal the 2010 health care law, commonly called Obamacare. 

She also has institutional support that she lacked in 2018, when some Democrats saw her as a weak candidate. This year, the state Democratic Party helped her with voter files and mobilization, while outside groups have $1.7 million in TV reservations to rival the $2.1 million from Republicans. 

Correction: This report was updated to reflect Bacon served in the Air Force.

Coming next: The rematch in Texas’ 10th District between Republican Michael McCaul and Democratic challenger Mike Siegel.