The 2018 Race That Could Settle the Democrats’ Civil War

In a Nebraska swing district, Kara Eastman is running a Brooklyn-style campaign. Can it possibly work?

OMAHA — There’s a general election playbook for how to run as a Democrat in Nebraska’s 2nd District, and in many other congressional districts like it. Run to the middle. Sand down the ideological edges. Get distance from the national party.

Kara Eastman has tossed it out the window.

After she shocked national Democrats by winning her primary in May, there was no pivot to the center, no cautious equivocating. In the run up to November, she even brought in some of the most liberal members of Congress to stump with her—a tactic that in past years would have been seen as ruinous.

“The district predominantly, the way it’s been competed for over the last decades – and I have worked directly or indirectly on the 2nd District in every cycle going back to 2000 – almost everybody will move toward the center,” says Jim Rogers, a veteran of Nebraska politics who served as campaign manager for former Rep. Brad Ashford, the last Democrat to hold this seat. “The thing that’s been unique about Kara is that even after the primary, she veered more left.”

The success or failure of Eastman’s unorthodox strategy—she believes it’s “futile” to try to convert Republicans—will be a key barometer for assessing which faction of the Democratic Party was right about the 2018 midterms: the cautious centrists who urged their party to hew toward safe, traditional positions, or the impassioned leftists who argue that unapologetic progressivism is the way to win.

Truth be told, Eastman’s policy platform is a little jarring to many voters in this district, a Republican-controlled seat that covers the largely Democratic city of Omaha and the largely GOP suburbs surrounding it. For starters, the expensive centerpiece of her campaign is Medicare for all, the lynchpin of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. She calls for tuition-free college, another Sanders staple, increased gun control, a $15 minimum wage and no restrictions on abortion. In other words, an agenda that’s always been assumed to be too politically radioactive for competitive congressional districts like Nebraska’s 2nd.

Her positions read like a liberal wishlist, not entirely different than the ones espoused by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a darling of the left whose message of unapologetic, pedal-to-the-metal progressivism powered her to an upset primary victory in a New York City district in June.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Eastman won national notice in May for defying the Democratic Party establishment and pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the primary election season. But there’s one glaring difference: On Election Day, Ocasio-Cortez will likely cruise to victory in an overwhelmingly Democratic, East Coast district where Hillary Clinton won four out of every five votes. Eastman, one the other hand, faces a Republican incumbent in a Republican-leaning district where Donald Trump won roughly one out of every two votes.

That distinction makes Eastman one of the most important and revealing congressional candidates of 2018. Replacing one Democrat with another in a solidly blue seat in New York doesn’t change the balance of power. But replacing a conservative Republican with an unapologetic, full-spectrum Democrat in Nebraska suddenly alters the equation, moving the Democratic Party one step closer to a more durable, broader-based and progressive-minded House majority.

Just as important, an Eastman victory would provide a validation of what the left has long insisted about how the Democratic Party needs to approach elections. The party, the argument goes, has been consigned to a minority in the House for much of the past quarter-century – and has withered at the statehouse level in many states – in no small part because they’ve been plagued by uninspiring, milquetoast centrists who fail to embrace bold, liberal positions that voters would respond to if given the chance. If Democrats made a habit of running authentically liberal candidates like Eastman who speak from the heart, progressives contend, they could win almost anywhere.

Yet if Eastman loses, her campaign becomes Exhibit A in the Democratic establishment’s case against the party’s truest believers. It will be held up as evidence that centrist-oriented candidates are the best fit in swing districts because, if you can’t win with a talented, well-funded progressive in a year marked by historic gains for women candidates and strong Democratic tailwinds, when exactly can you win?

***

The first thing you notice when you walk into Kara Eastman’s strip mall campaign headquarters is a big wall poster that reads “Progressives are winning everywhere!” The Progressive Change Campaign Committee poster, which features a national map of the year’s top progressive candidates for the House, includes photos of both Eastman and Ocasio-Cortez.

The storefront, the nerve center of a campaign that’s renown locally for its frenzied door-knocking and potent ground game, is humming with activity and noise on the early October afternoon when I stop in. Above a table filled with office supplies is a whimsical, hand-drawn sign that says, “Department of Magical Outreach.”

It’s there that I meet with Eastman, who’s immediately recognizable from her tortoise shell glasses. She doesn’t yet have the practiced artificiality of a seasoned pol. She’s direct and earnest, able to project warmth while maintaining distance.

She’s 46, but her age isn’t immediately obvious to everyone. During canvassing later that afternoon, an older voter will ask her how old she is, and he expresses relief when she tells him she’ll turn 47 on Election Day. He thought she might be in her mid-20s, and wasn’t comfortable voting for someone that young.

At her campaign headquarters, Eastman tells me her political origin story, which begins in the Midwest. She was born in Evanston, Illinois, grew up in Chicago and went to college in California. I later learn she was in a band at the time, the name of which – Pieces of Fuck – suggests she didn’t foresee a future in elected politics.

Twelve years ago, she moved to Omaha when her husband, Scott, took a job as an associate professor in the history department at Creighton University. With a masters degree in social work and extensive experience in the non-profit sector, Eastman founded a local non-profit, the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, a lead poisoning prevention organization. In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, the party’s equivalent of the Myers-Briggs test, Eastman backed Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders. When I ask her about the seeming incongruity, given her campaign strategy, she concedes Sanders’ views more closely align with her own.

“[I’m a] big Bernie Sanders fan, and I also really think Hillary Clinton is amazing. I loved a lot of the policy positions that Sanders put out and at the time, some of them seemed a little untenable,” she explains. “For me, and I’ve said this before and I think some people get a little weirded out about it, but I have a 17-year-old daughter and I wanted her to have a female president, somebody who had the right experience and somebody who was an amazing person.”
At the time, Eastman had one run for local public office under her belt, a successful bid for the Metropolitan Community College Board in 2014. The shock of the 2016 presidential election outcome helped spark the notion of running for something bigger, and doing it without holding back.

“I didn’t think people like me got elected. I’m a social worker. I don’t have a political science background,” Eastman says. “When Trump got elected, it was like, ‘Oh, I guess anyone can get elected.’” The frequent comparisons to Ocasio-Cortez, who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, have forced Eastman to make clear to voters there’s a difference between running for Congress as a social worker, which she is doing, and running as a socialist. Eastman points, too, to policy differences between herself and Ocasio-Cortez.

“I’m not calling to abolish ICE. I’m not calling for a universal basic income. She does identify as a democratic socialist. I don’t,” Eastman says. “I’m not endorsed by the democratic socialists. I never said I was a socialist. Just the fact that you want everybody to have healthcare doesn’t make you a socialist.

“I don’t even necessarily see it as a bad word. It’s just not true. It’s not an actual fact,” she says. “My favorite thing to say is, ‘I think you mean social worker, not socialist.’”

***

Only three Democrats have held Nebraska’s 2nd District since 1951. None of them lasted very long.

Instead, since mid-century, there’s been a long succession of Republicans, most of them with deep local connections. They tended to be born here, went to high school here or graduated from law school here – more than a few from Creighton University, the Catholic college that is one of the city’s largest employers.

They were mostly conservatives—usually steady, Bob Taft-wing types. One of them was billionaire investor Warren Buffet’s dad, Howard, who served at mid-century as a kind of proto-Ron Paul, a libertarian conservative with a non-interventionist streak.

The line of congressmen produced by Omaha since then obscured the fact that this was no conservative stronghold. Occasionally, in presidential election years when a surge of Democrats showed up, voters might even send a Democrat to Congress, where he would hold the seat for a brief period of time.

Brad Ashford was one of those Democrats. In 2014, Ashford became one of just two Democrats across the country to oust a Republican congressman. Incumbent Republican Rep. Lee Terry had overstayed his welcome – he barely won his primary months earlier – and Ashford was just the right candidate to take him down in what was otherwise a great Republican year nationally.

An Omaha native, Ashford was a respected figure who served two different stints in Nebraska’s nonpartisan unicameral legislature. He was a Democrat, but just barely. The giveaway? In the course of running for various offices during his career, he had run as a Democrat, as a Republican, and then as an independent before registering again as a Democrat.

Ashford would end up losing his seat narrowly to Republican Don Bacon in 2016 after just a single term. At a gracious and emotional press conference the day after, despite the hard fought campaign, he was asked if he would seek a rematch in two years.

“I’d have to figure out which party I’m in,” he joked.

At one time, a throwaway line like that would have gone unnoticed. Nebraska Democrats are fatalistic about their minority status in this overwhelmingly conservative state, and it’s led to a kind of gallows humor.

“Republicans have been very successful in defining Democrats culturally and socially in Nebraska,” explains Barry Rubin, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party. ‘They’ve defined us as snowflakey, that we want to raise taxes and redistribute wealth.”

Eastman is among a new generation of loud-and-proud Democrats who aren’t troubled by the weight of that collective history. But they are very troubled by candidates who can’t say with absolute certainty which side they are on.

Before deciding to run, she consulted with Ashford himself. They were already acquainted – Eastman had volunteered and phone-banked for Ashford’s campaign; the ex-congressman’s niece and Eastman’s daughter were best friends. In the months after his defeat, Eastman and her husband went to dinner with Ashford and his wife to talk it over.

“He was the first person I went to when I was making the decision to do this,” she says.

Ashford would later decide to run again for the seat himself, announcing his bid months after Eastman dove in with the expectation that he wouldn’t. The state and national parties greeted the former congressman with open arms.

He wasn’t the best fundraiser and his voting record wasn’t ideal – in his lone term, he had one of the more conservative voting records among congressional Democrats – but he was, after all, the first Democrat in more than 20 years to crack the code and win the seat.

In January 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House campaign arm, made it clear where the national party stood. It essentially gave Ashford the party imprimatur by adding him to its “Red to Blue” list, a program designed to highlight and provide resources to top candidates.

The decision to put a thumb on the scale for Ashford was entirely reasonable, if you apply traditional political yardsticks. Eastman had raised just $200,000 by the end of 2017, an uninspiring fundraising performance that suggested she’d never be able to go toe-to-toe with a well-funded Republican incumbent. Her unreserved embrace of progressive causes was another red flag – no Democrat that liberal had ever won the seat. On the face of it, Ashford looked to be the best shot Democrats had.

But Eastman had a few advantages that party officials hadn’t figured in. It turns out she was a natural, with a rare ability to convey her positions in personal, human terms. At the heart of her signature Medicare for All proposal was a story about her mother’s battle with cancer and a pill she needed to take that cost $2,500. Her immigration stance is influenced by a friend who had been deported, and by her brother, whose job in the federal court system required a daily report on kids being separated from their families. On guns, her position is colored by concerns about her high school age daughter.

Eastman also assembled a campaign apparatus that operated with a missionary zeal. There were no hired guns here. It was mainly a family-and-friends affair, along with volunteers drawn to the clarity of her message. Her husband Scott handled policy. A colleague from the non-profit sector, Dave Pantos, served as finance director.

“One of the things voters need right now is to feel that sense of authenticity from a candidate and that includes all the people around you,” Eastman says.

But, she admits, “it wasn’t like professionals were at my door saying, ‘hire me.’”

Her campaign did anything and everything it could to capture attention – and make it fun for supporters. To meet fundraising benchmarks, Pantos took pies to the face in Facebook Live videos. Eastman did political ‘pop-up’ visits, where people could visit with her in coffee shops or bars. There were weekly postcard parties to write to voters and ‘Kara-oke’ events where supporters could hear the candidate sing.

Against Ashford, a political veteran who venerated bipartisanship and the politics of moderation, there couldn’t have been a sharper contrast. The two Democrats were different by almost every measure – ideological crispness, age, gender, place of birth, work experience – and one that especially mattered to many younger voters who had come of age during or after the Obama era. Unlike Ashford, Eastman was an unabashed liberal, a Democrat and she owned it.

“So often Democrats here run as Republicans and they almost run away from the party affiliation,” says state Sen. Burke Harr, who represents Central Omaha. “They’re never a proud Democrat. She ran as a proud Democrat who stands with the ideals of the national party and I don’t think I’ve seen a candidate do that since….2006.”

In one television ad that ran during the primary, Eastman made it clearer than ever. “I’m tired of hearing Democrats don’t have a backbone,” she said in a direct-to-camera spot. “That we don’t stand for anything. That changes now.”

Over coffee one morning at Jimmy’s Egg at 80th and Dodge, a local franchise breakfast haunt, Harr explains that among the affluent, educated professionals he represents, it was impossible to miss the energy Eastman’s message was creating. He saw it in local parades and in the proliferation of Eastman yard signs. A lot of the younger voters, he says, viewed Ashford as no different than a Republican.

“Brad didn’t toe the party line all the time, so they wanted someone where they can say, ‘Hey, if we’re going to go down, let’s go down swinging and let’s bring in our person that we want,’” said Harr, who backed Ashford in the primary. “And I heard that over and over.”

Eastman would go on to defeat Ashford by three percentage points, powered by a surge of first-time women voters. Ashford’s campaign took Eastman’s challenge seriously, expected heavy turnout, and still was surprised by the number of Democrats who showed up. Turnout doubled over 2014, the last midterm election primary.

When Pantos, Eastman’s finance director, recounts to me his recollection of primary election night, he chokes up with emotion and has to stop for a moment to collect himself.

***

Eastman’s brain trust does have a theory of the case. Over lunch, Crystal Rhoades, the Democratic Party chairman of Omaha’s Douglas County, explained the political logic to me. An early Eastman supporter, Rhoades has been something of a local lightning rod for her attempts to move the party in a more leftward direction. To her way of thinking, the old formula of trying to hold the party base and pick off Republicans and independents is a fool’s errand, a flawed approach that all but guarantees defeat.

She says she came to that conclusion after a deep dive into the data. A former community organizer who first met Eastman in the non-profit world, Rhoades started out as a political hobbyist crunching numbers with her husband – prior precinct results, turnout, voter registration figures, campaign spending, door knocks, any data they could get their hands on.

Their overarching conclusion? Better to concentrate on turning out more Democrats by exciting the base than moving to the center in the hopes of winning over wayward Republicans The idea is to get as many low-propensity voters as possible to cast ballots – particularly those who had voted in past presidential elections, but not midterms – and then roll it up among the affluent white liberals in Dundee, the millennials of Benson, African Americans in North Omaha and Hispanics in South Omaha.

“We realized it was a turnout problem. Democrats just didn’t participate in the numbers needed to win,” says Rhoades, whose husband, Ben Onkka, serves as Eastman’s campaign manager. “The idea that we’re going to win votes from Republicans is crazy. We’re not. We’re not trying to change their minds. It’s much easier to get someone to the polls than to change the minds of true believers.”

Of course, identifying new Democratic voters and turning them out was only part of the challenge. The party also had a candidate problem, in Rhoades’ estimation.

“Democrats would stay home because they didn’t have real Democrats to vote for,” she says. “We’ve never tried it this way where we picked a progressive woman and said, ‘let’s see how this works.’ We have always picked a pro-life, Catholic, male lawyer. This is very much the mindset of the traditional candidates, the usual suspects, what people call the establishment.”

There is a precedent for this approach, and it came during the 2008 presidential campaign. Back then, the Obama campaign took a long look at the electoral map and realized that the size of the 2nd District’s latent Democratic base made it the exhaust port of Nebraska’s GOP Death Star. In other words, the weak spot—and with the right targeted approach and great intel, Dems could take it out.

While the state was typically among the nation’s most reliably Republican in presidential races, its unusual system of allocating electoral votes by congressional district, rather than distributing them on a statewide, winner-take-all basis, offered a unique opportunity for the right Democrat.

The Obama campaign then targeted the 2nd with a vigorous grassroots campaign, opened three field offices there, and unexpectedly picked off a single electoral vote for the then-Illinois senator.

“It was clear [John] McCain would carry two of Nebraska’s three districts comfortably,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe would later write in his book, The Audacity to Win. “But we thought we could steal the 2nd District, around Omaha, where our organization was strong.”

Omaha, he wrote, was “my personal favorite target.”

The Obama tide wasn’t enough to oust Terry, the incumbent Republican congressman at the time, but it did serve notice to the national parties that the district wasn’t a lost cause. The right liberal candidate, under the right conditions, could pull it off.

To the Democratic establishment here, and to many campaign pros, Rhodes is preaching a suicidal doctrine. Yet here’s the interesting thing: While nearly all of them think Eastman will fall short on Election Day, almost none of them are certain of it anymore – not in this election year, not with Donald Trump in the White House and not with Eastman’s robust field organization.

“There’s a battle between people like me and people like Kara over what kind of candidates can win. They say Republican-lite doesn’t win. I don’t think they’re right,” says Rubin. Then come the caveats: “She’s making a game of it for sure. Her grassroots game is very strong and impressive.”

***

Campaign tactics aside, Eastman’s bigger problem might be her opponent.

Indeed, if you were in the business of recruiting candidates, you could hardly find one better suited for the 2nd District than Don Bacon, the current congressman. A former commander of Offutt Air Force Base, a major area employer that is located just outside the city, Bacon is a mainstream conservative, neither a hard-edged ideologue nor a loud-mouthed bomb-thrower.

He’s approachable, garrulous and here, nearly 1,200 miles away from Washington, voters would be hard-pressed to envision this freshman congressman as a big part of the mess in D.C. His ads reinforce that image, suggesting he’s down-to-earth and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

In his successful 2016 run, one spot titled “Everybody loves Bacon” was shot in a grocery store. This year, in one of his ads the congressman fries bacon in a modest kitchen. “Everyone in Nebraska knows that when you turn up the heat, bacon gets even better,” he says to the camera.

I met the congressman at his campaign headquarters, where he tells me his parents were Barry Goldwater volunteers. At 13, he was reading Human Events and National Review. He describes himself as a Ronald Reagan kid who cried when Gerald Ford beat Reagan for the GOP nomination at the 1976 convention.

Bacon’s offices seem more like a doctor’s waiting room than a messy hive of political activity. The Optimist’s Creed is stationed in a bookcase next to a book about Thomas Jefferson. The shelves are filled with bacon-related products, ranging from bacon salsa to bacon marmalade to bacon ketchup. Portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill hang on the walls beyond the front office, along with memorabilia from his service in the Air Force.

When asked about Eastman, Bacon notes that her views are a bit exotic for Nebraska. He admits to being a little unsettled at first after her primary victory – he said he didn’t sleep well that night because he had been preparing to run against Ashford, the centrist he knocked off two years earlier. But, he says, the sharp contrast has provided an obvious opening.

“This isn’t Brooklyn or New York,” says Bacon. “The Bernie Sanders wing doesn’t play well here. You don’t see a lot of democratic socialists here.”

National Republican groups have bombarded the district with ads to reinforce that message.

“There’s a clear choice for Congress between a liberal radical and a patriot who served as the commander of Offutt Air Base,” the narrator says in one radio ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC connected to House GOP leadership. “Kara Eastman’s been a liberal radical since her school days. In college, Eastman studied to be a sex therapist and was a singer in a band called Pieces of [bleep]. While Eastman was dropping F-bombs, Don Bacon was serving in the Air Force and preparing to lead at Offutt.”

Unlike many of his House colleagues this year, Bacon has taken nothing for granted, aware of what he calls “the energy factor” on the other side. Eastman unexpectedly turned out to be a formidable fundraiser, raising more than $2.35 million through mid-October, yet Bacon hauled in $2.48 million over the same period. He says he knows that the first reelect is always the hardest.

As he sees it, the Eastman campaign has given him an opportunity by focusing so intently on maximizing the Democratic vote.

“They’re not even trying to reach the middle, or moderate Republicans,” Bacon says. “I need to make sure the Republicans turn out. I found that our base is as energized as theirs. So it’s the independent guys that are going to drive this. If I can get them to come out for me, I think game over. If I can get more moderate Democrats, like some of these unions that are traditionally Democrat, she’s not only going to have to get more Bernie Sanders voters, she’s going to have to make up for the ones she’s losing. So my goal is to make this an insurmountable mountain for her to climb.”

In late September, the New York Times live-polled the district and found Bacon had 51 percent to 42 percent lead, with 7 percent undecided. More recent polling also shows Bacon with a single-digit advantage.

It’s possible the polls aren’t adequately capturing the grassroots energy generated by Eastman’s campaign, or the composition of the Nov. 6 electorate that her campaign is playing an important role in shaping. Or maybe too many voters view her as a “dangerous radical,” as the Republican ads portray her.

Win or lose, the fight won’t end on Election Day. An Eastman win would set off a wave of excitement on the left and command national attention, but to alter conventional political thinking, progressives would need to marshal convincing evidence that Eastman’s experience is replicable, and not a fluke victory engineered under optimal political conditions for Democratic candidates of all stripes. It may be that she’ll need to win reelection before the lesson of a victory truly sinks in.

An Eastman defeat won’t immediately settle anything either. Because the race has been so closely watched on the left, a loss will set off a serious battle for control of the narrative. Party officials and officials will view the results as a blown opportunity, an example of the progressive left’s reach outstripping its grasp. They’ll point out that she had adequate financial resources and a strong national environment in which to run and still fell short. What better evidence is there, they’ll say, that the Eastman campaign was built around faulty assumptions?

“Are there enough repressed progressives to put you over the top of very reliable Republicans?” says Rogers. “It’ll be a great case study for political scientists for years to see what happens after this election on the basis of that strategy.”

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