WASHINGTON — When it comes to legislation, Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., has been voting largely along a party line.
But it’s not his party.
Since the 114th Congress convened earlier this month, the House passed seven bills that were opposed by a majority of Ashford’s fellow Democrats. Most of those bills face veto threats from President Barack Obama.
But Ashford has voted with the Republicans for six of the seven bills.
He voted for legislation to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline. He voted to ease employer mandates in the new health care law. He voted to roll back Wall Street regulations.
The only exception is when Ashford stuck with fellow Democrats last week in opposing a GOP measure prohibiting federal funds for abortions. Ashford described it as redundant, since federal law already does that.
Ashford says people should hardly be surprised at his willingness to cross the aisle. He was, after all, a Republican for many years.
On the campaign trail last year, he promised to represent the Omaha-based 2nd District with an independent voice and seek bipartisan solutions.
“I am for ratcheting back a lot of the regulation and letting businesses grow, not unfettered, but at least trying to unleash their ability to do business more productively,” Ashford said. “And that’s what I’ve always believed. So I don’t think I ever tried to hide that.”
That hasn’t stopped a lively discussion on Ashford’s Facebook page about the rightward tilt of his votes.
A sampling of comments:
“Is it too much to ask for the rare Democrat elected in this state to vote like the Democrat we fought to elect?”
“Usually takes more than a month for me to give up on someone. Apparently the congressman is a rare breed. Win my faith back. I dare you.”
“I just hate him for fooling me during the election process into thinking he was something better than Lee Terry. He is even worse, that wolf in sheep’s clothing!”
Ashford said he listens to Nebraskans who come at issues from the left. He has met with Jane Kleeb of the anti-Keystone XL environmental group Bold Nebraska, for example.
But he and his supporters say he’s just voting his conscience. And it’s no secret that he’s from the moderate-to-conservative wing of the Democratic Party.
He described that as keeping with Nebraska tradition.
“Ben Nelson was pretty darn conservative,” Ashford said. “And I’m not as conservative as Ben on social issues.”
There are plenty of differences between his views and the Republican agenda, he said.
“I support a pathway to citizenship, I support women’s health care issues,” Ashford said.
While much has been made about his decisions to switch parties multiple times during his career, Ashford said his positions have been consistent over the years.
He said it’s the parties that have shifted, generally tilting further away from the middle.
Voting with Republicans hasn’t necessarily endeared him to Republicans, however — at least not those in charge of defeating him in 2016.
The National Republican Campaign Committee sends out regular emails calling out Ashford for his “silence” on issues of the day, ignoring his votes and his comments against Obama on Keystone XL.
One vote Ashford seems conflicted over was his support for the GOP Homeland Security Department funding measure. That bill included amendments stripping money for Obama’s executive actions that have shielded millions from deportation. Ashford voted against the individual amendments, but ultimately voted for the final legislation that included the amendments. Even a few moderate Republicans opposed the bill.
Ashford said it was “low politics” for Republicans to tie a must-pass piece of national security legislation to the immigration debate.
“I felt badly about having to vote, in a way, against the immigration reform. But national security does trump that issue,” Ashford said.
John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said two years isn’t much time for Ashford to establish himself and Republicans will be gunning for him in 2016.
The GOP candidate will be coming to the race with a clean slate and will be eager to hold any left-leaning votes over Ashford’s head.
Hibbing said Democratic activists have to understand that reality.
“If they want to cling to that seat, they’re going to have to do everything they can and they’re going to have to be a little bit understanding,” Hibbing said. “Sometimes the liberals are just as silly as conservatives in eating their own and not being realistic about what it’s like for the person in that spot. He’s going to be lucky to squeak through in two years. And the more liberal votes he casts, the more difficult that’s going to be for him.”
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the last election cycle, downplayed any consternation among Democrats about Ashford’s early propensity to vote with the GOP.
“It doesn’t concern me, it doesn’t faze me, it doesn’t bother me,” Israel said. “He’s doing what he should do for his district. ... Every single vote he casts, from naming post offices to deciding whether to commit U.S. troops, his first priority has to be his district. Over the course of two years, there will be moments where he votes with Democrats. There will be moments he votes with Republicans.”
So no heartburn?
“The only thing that would cause me heartburn would be if he doesn’t come back in two years,” Israel said.
Nebraska GOP Chairman J.L. Spray said what’s happening now on Capitol Hill is that there are some pent-up good ideas that are moving forward with Republicans in charge.
“A lot of it’s just genuinely good ideas that need to be put out through Congress, and that’s what he’s doing,” Spray said of Ashford. “I don’t want him to not vote with us. At various times, he’s been a Republican.”
Still, he noted, Ashford supports Democrats on issues such as congressional leadership and procedural moves. And he raised the idea that Ashford could face mounting pressure from his Democratic colleagues.
“Being in Congress does require a certain amount of fortitude and I worry a bit about whether he has it,” Spray said. “We’ll find out.”
The chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, Vince Powers, noted that it’s too early in the game to offer any grand pronouncements.
Ashford is going to vote for what he believes, regardless of party, Powers said, and the Democratic faithful should take a deep breath.
“Here is what I’d say to all the Democrats in the 2nd (District) when it comes to evaluating Brad Ashford’s first two weeks: Relax. R-E-L-A-X.”
Ashford himself pointed out that there will be many more votes to cast over the next two years.
“I’ll have plenty of votes that will make Democrats happy,” he said. “And plenty that won’t probably.”