Sen. Ben Sasse says his easy win demonstrated that Nebraskans want a "common-sense conservative," but that doesn't mean being in lockstep 100% of the time with the president.
This fall will mark Round 2 between Kara Eastman and U.S. Rep. Don Bacon in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, and the two candidates wasted no time Tuesday night in coming out swinging.
Democrat Eastman earned her chance for a rematch against the two-term Republican incumbent Tuesday night by topping two other rivals in her party’s primary. She immediately took aim at Bacon, saying his record of reliable votes for President Donald Trump and his party don’t fit in a swing district like the Omaha-area 2nd.
“People are looking for leadership and for representation that actually represents the district, and not just somebody who’s going to align himself with his party,” Eastman said.
Bacon also emerged from the evening ready for the next round. Not only is Eastman too partisan to represent the district, he said, she also lacks the temperament.
“She was quoted as saying she wanted President Trump arrested for treason,” Bacon said. “That encapsulates someone who is too partisan to represent us in Washington. She is someone who has high vitriol, anger and hate towards the president.”
Two years after a fired-up base of progressives helped upstart Eastman upset former congressman Brad Ashford in the Democratic primary, she easily outpolled his wife, Ann Ashford, and Omaha restaurateur Gladys Harrison in Tuesday’s vote.
That gave her a second chance against Bacon, who beat her by just fewer than 5,000 votes — about 2% of all cast — in the 2018 general election. She said she thinks it will be a different race this time.
“It’s already very different in the direction this country has moved,” she said.
Bacon, who faced only nominal opposition Tuesday in the GOP primary from noncompetitive candidate Paul Anderson, said he looks forward to running on his record in November and won’t be afraid to share the party’s ticket with Trump.
With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down public gatherings like election-night parties, Tuesday was a low-key evening for both candidates.
Eastman addressed her supporters on Facebook Live after watching the returns come in with family and campaign staff at her campaign manager’s home in west Omaha. Bacon fielded reporters’ questions from his campaign office in Millard.
Eastman ran the Democratic race as the prohibitive favorite, looking past her primary opponents to the fall. She easily outraised and outspent a late-charging Ashford, who lent her campaign more than $200,000 for advertising during the campaign’s final days.
A centrist former Republican, Ashford echoed Bacon from two years earlier in arguing that Eastman’s policies are too extreme for most voters in a district that includes Douglas County and western Sarpy County.
The key example both Ashford and Bacon cite is Eastman’s support for “Medicare for All,” the single-player, universal health care system that would do away with private health insurance.
But the 48-year-old Eastman hasn’t backed down from her support for the health care plan championed by liberal firebrand Bernie Sanders, noting the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the pitfalls of a system that mostly relies on people getting their health insurance through their employer.
Eastman offered herself as “an authentic Democrat.” And much like two years ago, she benefited from an army of grassroots progressive volunteers, who shifted this spring from going door to door to making thousands of calls from phone banks.
Harrison, who owns and operates Omaha soul food restaurant Big Mama’s Kitchen, struggled to raise funds as she tried to keep her family business afloat during the pandemic.
Bacon, a 56-year-old retired Air Force brigadier general and former commander of Offutt Air Force Base, enjoyed the power of incumbency in his primary win. His campaign benefited from calls on his behalf by the Nebraska Republican Party.
Eastman and Bacon now enter a fall campaign that will likely be heavily influenced by the top-of-ticket battle between Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. While the two congressional candidates competed two years ago, the presidential race is sure to change the dynamics.
Bacon on Tuesday night said he wished the president were at times more diplomatic. But on issues from abortion to taxes to trade, he said, the president’s positions align well with the district.
“I want that conservative philosophy in the White House,” he said.
Bacon also believes Trump’s supporters will be highly motivated in November. The Republican wave that Trump created in 2016 helped Bacon to his 1-point victory over then-incumbent Brad Ashford.
Bacon said he also looked forward to running on his record. Despite Eastman’s claims, he said a recent scorecard rated him in the top 7% in the U.S. House for bipartisanship.
Sen. Ben Sasse says his easy win demonstrated that Nebraskans want a "common-sense conservative," but that doesn't mean being in lockstep 100% of the time with the president.
Bacon said he will ask voters to focus on three areas: Who do they trust to bring back the economy, to keep the country safe and to protect people’s health care? He again criticized Eastman’s health care plan.
“Seventy percent of Americans like their health care, and I want to work with the other 30%,” he said. “She wants to throw the other 70% under the bus.”
But Democrats are heavily motivated to oust Trump, which could drive Democratic turnout in the swing district. And this time Eastman will have the support of the national Democratic establishment, which failed to jump in with both feet to help her when she lost narrowly two years ago.
In charging she is too extreme, Eastman said, Bacon is just “following the Republican playbook” in a race he knows he’s in danger of losing.
“He’ll say that I’m too extreme when he has voted 95% of the time with Donald Trump,” Eastman said. “He is the definition of extreme.”
Omahans have spoken: They want better streets, and they’re willing to pay for them.
Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved measures allowing the City of Omaha to issue $200 million in bonds to create a long-term street maintenance program and to pay off those bonds with an increase in property taxes.
While Omaha’s economy has been upended by the novel coronavirus, it appears that fixing roads — often the target of muttered curses from drivers who hit cracks and potholes — remains a priority for voters.
Now that the bond issue has passed, residents can expect the first round of road work to begin this summer, Mayor Jean Stothert said.
“Thank you to the voters for recognizing the importance of our road infrastructure and approving the bond issue,” Stothert said in a statement Tuesday. “With voter support, we will immediately begin an aggressive, new pavement maintenance program to repair and rehabilitate streets throughout the city.
“The long-term bond funding will greatly reduce our annual road repair costs and allow us to spend your tax dollars wisely.”
The bond issue will generate $40 million more in city street funding in each of the next five years to repair and maintain roads across Omaha, in every City Council district and dozens of neighborhoods. The money will address neighborhood streets, arterial streets and unimproved roads that were never built to city standards.
City officials haven’t specified which roads and residential areas will see construction first, but they have created a list of priority projects that encompass about $80 million to $100 million worth of work.
Projects on the list span neighborhoods across the city, including Florence, Walnut Grove, Cherry Ridge, Oak Hills, Candlewood, Miracle Hills and Happy Hollow. The list includes major arterial road projects that span the city.
Omaha should be spending $75 million a year to resurface its 5,000 lane miles once every 20 years, transportation experts have said. But the city currently is able to spend $41 million a year. The bond issue approved Tuesday will help bridge that $34 million gap.
The bond issue authorized the city to increase the property tax rate by $35 for every $100,000 of valuation, but city officials have said that number is expected to be lower, perhaps an estimated $26.
Steve Curtiss, the city’s finance director, said Tuesday that the final number will depend on where interest rates stand when the city actually issues the general obligation bonds, which may not happen until early 2022.
Stay tuned for more election developments.
Supporters of the bond issue have argued that the need for a long-term rehabilitation program is clear to anyone who drives in Omaha.
During a February public hearing, several Omaha leaders in transportation, construction and community development spoke in favor of the bond issue, arguing that Omaha needs to focus on transportation as it works to create better jobs and attract in-demand workers.
Opponents have expressed frustration with another bond issue that will raise taxes. Some wanted the city to explore raising the wheel tax — an option Stothert had opposed.
Down the road, Omahans may be asked to approve more bond issues to continue repairing and maintaining city streets. Stothert has said the city would need to come back with a series of bond issues — subject to approval from future voters — to keep going.
Over a 20-year period, officials anticipate that the city would have the funding to resurface every street in Omaha. And the city can accomplish that with just a one-time increase in the tax levy, the mayor has said.
During the months leading up to the primary, Stothert stressed that she thought it was important for citizens to decide how to fix and pay for Omaha’s streets.
“We can stop the deterioration of our infrastructure,” Stothert said in January. “But it will take all of us to agree that it’s worth the expense.”
On Tuesday, Omaha voters did just that.
World-Herald staff writer Jeffrey Robb contributed to this report.
Election poll inspector Larry Ziska looked around the South High gym an hour before polls closed Tuesday with the satisfaction of a host who just threw a successful party.
All poll workers had shown up. In-person voting was slow, but that was good news in this pandemic. Mail-in ballots made up for the low primary day turnout.
Plus this cavernous, empty high school gym offered ample room to spread out for social distancing, which helped masked poll workers and voters feel safe. There were extra face masks on hand, pens for voters to keep and Clorox wipes for the plastic ballot holders.
“It’s good to be a Nebraskan,” said the 78-year-old veteran poll worker.
That sentiment was echoed by Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, who said Tuesday night that cooperation from state government agencies, county election offices and groups that helped recruit poll workers led to a primary that made him “very proud to be a Nebraskan today.”
“Nebraskans did not allow this pandemic to stop them from exercising their right to vote,” Evnen said. “They had opportunities to vote early by mail or at the polls. They selected the option they thought was best for them.”
Nebraska voters may not have turned out in person, but they did by ballot. Evnen’s office received 441,000 requests for early ballots. About 336,000 were returned before Tuesday. More were expected to be picked up at ballot drop-off boxes.
Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said the election’s 35% turnout smashed the modern-day record of 27% set in 2006. The influx of early ballots reversed what he usually sees in primaries: 85% of Douglas County votes this go-around were early ballots. The past two primary elections, early ballots accounted for 21% (2018) and 19% (2016) of total ballots cast.
He said this could be a precursor for November’s general election but “the virus is going to have a lot to say about that.”
One of Douglas County’s drop-off boxes stood outside the Milton R. Abrahams Branch Library near 90th and Fort Streets. In a 10-minute period around noon Tuesday, a reporter counted eight voters placing their ballot envelopes inside the box while just two people entered the library to vote in person.
Poll workers throughout Douglas County said Tuesday that in-person turnout was light.
“Half, if not one-third,” said poll worker Joe Clark at the old Center Mall at 42nd and Center Streets. “We’re usually well above 100 at this time.” As of 2 p.m., he’d logged 43 voters.
The Omaha Community Playhouse near 69th and Cass Streets had hosted 37 voters by lunchtime, including Jim Christensen, who wore a Space Force ball cap and a face mask. A Republican, Christensen said there wasn’t a lot on his ballot “to vote for” though he wanted to cast a “yes” vote for financing city bonds for more street repair.
“It’s overdue,” he said of his “yes” vote.
Poll workers across the county, and the state, carefully separated ballot stations and marked social distancing boundaries on the floor with blue tape.
There were no “I voted” stickers.
For the most part, those who turned up in person were people like Donna Dutcher, 50, who voted in the morning at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church on West Maple Road because she likes to be around people.
“I’m a social person. I’m tired of being isolated,” said Dutcher, who wore a homemade black mask.
Dutcher wasn’t worried about coming into contact with other people.
“People are social distancing at Walmart and Home Depot. They can do it when they vote, too,” she said.
At Dundee Elementary School, Joslynn Hoburg said she also likes going to the polling place.
“It’s a fun experience,” she said. “I like seeing all the signs, and it just reminds me of why I vote.”
Others were like Alyc Beasley, 26, who missed the deadline for the mail-in ballot. So she showed up first thing to cast her ballot at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in northwest Omaha — she was a little apprehensive until she saw the polling place was nearly empty.
Nothing was going to stop the committed Democrat from voting for former Vice President Joe Biden, she said. She’s not a fan of President Donald Trump.
“I hope there’s a good turnout. This election is very important,” she said. “We’ve just got to get the Oompa Loompa out of office.”
The Omaha-area congressional district is a contested battleground where Bacon, a Republican, narrowly beat Eastman, a Democrat, two years ago.
Kruse said he wanted to avoid a debacle like last month’s Wisconsin primary, which featured the spectacle of masked voters standing for hours in long lines to vote. In that election, many poll workers refused to show up, which meant consolidating many polling sites into just a few.
That happened at only a few locations in Omaha.
“Two things really helped us,” Kruse said. “We had time — we had two months to prepare. And we worked really hard not to have a consolidation of polling places.”
The nonpartisan voting rights group Civic Nebraska said the massive move to mail-in voting was reflected across the state, too.
“We’re grateful to the overwhelming number of Nebraskans who voted by mail, which is a secure and convenient way to cast a ballot in sickness and in health,” John Cartier, Civic Nebraska’s director of voting rights, said in a statement. “Nebraska voters were presented with a challenge this election year, and they have risen to it.”
In the South High gym, Ziska reflected on a long history of voting and working local elections. His first for both was the presidential election of 1960 when John F. Kennedy was elected.
The host was pleased with how the day had gone.
“Holy smokes, people came in with their masks on. Everyone complied,” he said. “It’s been smooth as silk.”
LINCOLN — The social distancing restrictions that curbed travel in Nebraska apparently cleared the roads for extreme speeders.
Nebraska State Patrol Superintendent John Bolduc said Tuesday that troopers have cited 177 drivers for going more than 100 mph since the restrictions began. He said that represents a “substantial increase” over pre-pandemic levels.
Speaking at Gov. Pete Ricketts’ daily coronavirus briefing, Bolduc attributed the spike to the state’s directed health measures, which discouraged travel and encouraged people to stay home. Traffic counts have dropped since Ricketts imposed the first measure on March 19.
“I think the opportunity is there, and some folks are taking advantage of it,” Bolduc said, while warning that “it’s not safe to travel at those speeds on our Interstates.”
He said people should not think they can get away with extreme speeding just because of the pandemic. But he did say troopers have been advised to use discretion in handling situations to reduce their potential exposure to the virus.
So far, no troopers have tested positive for coronavirus, although a few have had to self-isolate after arresting people who claimed to be infected. Testing showed that neither the troopers nor the people they arrested had the virus.
Along with normal duties like stopping speeders, troopers have been helping with the state’s response to the coronavirus, Bolduc said. They have provided security at a number of mobile testing sites around the state, often working at sites where Nebraska National Guard members are helping with the testing.
They also have delivered samples from those testing sites to the public health laboratory in Lincoln. Bolduc said the patrol took on the latter task at the request of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Bolduc compared the patrol’s efforts in this crisis to their work during last year’s severe weather and floods.
“You just adapt, and you solve the problems that come at you,” he said.
The briefing came one day after Nebraska recorded its 100th virus-related death. Ricketts said 62 deaths were among residents of long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
A total of 292 residents and 218 employees of long-term care facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus. Ricketts’ policy is to release aggregate numbers only. The state does not release information on specific facilities, unlike Iowa and many other states.
Nebraska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Gary Anthone, said 192 people are hospitalized for coronavirus across the state. That includes 81 people who are in intensive care, with 56 of them on ventilators. But he said hospital capacity remains good and hospital beds are only about half-full statewide.
The county had almost 29% of tests come back positive in results reported Monday, according to the Health Department.
Many of the questions posed to Ricketts on Tuesday concerned the relaxing of restrictions, particularly involving bars. The governor said he will not allow bars to open during May but will watch the disease trends to see about a later reopening date.
He said bars are a particular concern because they attract gatherings of people. At a typical crowded bar, “Was there 6 feet of distance between anybody?” he asked.
As for other events and activities, he said he has a team working on how county fairs might proceed. Auto racing and horse racing can be held as long as participants observe social distancing guidelines and there are no fans. He encouraged people to call his office to see what might be possible on those events. No guidance is available yet for the Cornhusker State Games or the Seward Independence Day festivities.
Ricketts said many decisions will hinge on what happens under the current loosening of restrictions. He said he wants to make sure that cases do not overwhelm the health care system, which means being able to keep at least 30% of beds, intensive care beds and ventilators available. State officials are tracking capacity on a hospital by hospital basis.