Nebraska’s 2nd District House race was expected to be a heavyweight re-match between Republican Don Bacon and Democrat Brad Ashford, a marquee battle that would command the national spotlight and attract millions in outside spending.
Now Kara Eastman’s surprise primary upset of Ashford has prompted various handicappers to quickly shift their ratings of the race in Bacon’s direction, raising the question of whether national groups will lose interest in it.
“I don’t think it will fall off the radar, at least not right away,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It is Republican-leaning but not overwhelmingly so, and Eastman definitely has a shot to win, even though I think she starts as an underdog.”
One key question is whether national Democrats will invest as heavily in the race as they would have for Ashford and if left-leaning groups cheering Eastman’s victory will back those cheers with checks.
And Republican-affiliated groups could shift their resources away from the district if they think that incumbent Bacon shouldn’t need help.
It’s not just the congressional candidates with a lot riding on those decisions. Shifts in funding could affect candidates in down-ballot races as well.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made plain its preference for Ashford as its best option to topple Bacon and named former congressman Ashford to their “Red To Blue” program. That’s where it showcases the party’s highest-priority challengers and seeks to help them with fundraising and organizing tools.
Nonprofit executive Eastman hasn’t been named to that program — at least not yet.
The DCCC noted after her win that she automatically gets $128,000 in money designated for the nominee, with more on the way. It also said that DCCC Chair Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., called Eastman to congratulate her and say they want to work with her.
Those national Democrats will be evaluating her campaign in the coming weeks and months, judging how her team comes together and raises money.
One way to demonstrate that she’s a general election contender is to post good numbers through the rest of the current fundraising quarter, which ends June 30.
Kondik noted that national party operatives and independent observers don’t always get it right in their candidate assessments. Eastman could well turn out to be a stronger general election candidate than Ashford would have been.
She is, after all, a fresh face who has shown she can mobilize voters. Where Ashford’s public profile — for good and bad — was well-established by his decades of political activity, Eastman isn’t nearly as well-defined in the public’s mind and may appeal to those looking for change.
“I just think she has more to prove as the general election starts than Ashford would have,” Kondik said.
While Republican groups were quick to cast Eastman as too far left to take the seat, they aren’t exactly departing the battlefield.
“We are committed to doing what it takes to make sure Don Bacon wins,” Congressional Leadership Fund spokeswoman Courtney Alexander told The World-Herald.
One of the chief Republican super PACs targeting House races, the CLF made the Omaha contest a priority from the start of the cycle, basing its first field office in the district and reserving $1.6 million in television air time for ads.
Each CLF field office is staffed by one full-time field staffer who is in charge of several volunteers and interns.
Bacon still is listed on the website for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Patriot program, which urges donors to give to GOP incumbents in the most competitive races.
The DCCC, meanwhile, will continue to fund its two offices in the district, which have three staff members and some canvassers.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb is hoping they will expand that operation, which is aimed at both building the party and supporting the Democratic nominee.
Kleeb said the state party had been counting on a significant investment from the DCCC not just to help win back the House seat but also to win races for the State Legislature, Public Service Commission and other offices.
Losing those dollars would blow a hole in the finances of their overall plans.
“That hurts our down-ballot candidates, not just 2nd Congressional District,” Kleeb said. “So the question is — will progressive groups fill that hole? If we are going to say we want more progressive Democrats running, then who is funding the revolution?”
Some of those groups appear to be in wait-and-see mode, such as EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports women candidates who favor a right to abortion.
“EMILY’s List was excited to see Kara win her primary on Tuesday,” group spokeswoman Kristen Hernandez said. “We’re watching the race closely and assessing our involvement moving forward.”
Nebraska Republican Party Chair Dan Welch expressed confidence in Bacon but said he has no indication the NRCC will back off of its focus on the race.
“They want to make sure that they win this seat,” Welch said. “The 2nd District has always been very competitive . . . we’re not going to take anything for granted.”
Eastman campaign spokeswoman Heather Aliano said Eastman has received calls and support from many groups around the country. She declined to name the groups.
“I’m confident that we’re going to have the support that we need to be competitive in this race,” she said.
In a statement, Bacon campaign manager Mary Jane Truemper said:
“Team Bacon is excited to have an opponent in the 2018 election, and Don is looking forward to contrasting the issues for the voters of Nebraska’s 2nd District.”