A Michigan congresswoman’s speech at a Nebraska Democratic Party fundraiser this month left congressional candidate Kara Eastman and her supporters worried that the state party is favoring her opponent, Brad Ashford.
Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb said she’s “disappointed” at the suggestion. She said she and other party officials have worked hard to be fair to each candidate in Nebraska’s 2nd District primary race.
Eastman said it was “pretty uncomfortable and somewhat humiliating” to hear U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., tell the crowd of Democrats that Nebraska should send Ashford back to Congress.
At one point, Eastman said, she exclaimed, “Or not!”
The Morrison Exon Dinner, the state party’s annual fundraiser, drew 400 people and raised $70,000, Kleeb said.
Some in attendance said Dingell’s endorsement of Ashford created an uncomfortable situation.
“There were some people that were cheering and there were some people that were booing and there were some people who were sitting there sort of stunned and silent,” said Crystal Rhoades, a member of the Nebraska Public Service Commission and an Eastman supporter.
Eastman and Rhoades said the event gave the appearance that the state party is backing Ashford.
Kleeb said, “The state party has stayed very neutral.”
The party’s role in a primary, she said, is to offer access to resources such as voter files, press lists and expertise.
Kleeb said the overall event was a success during which the party raised “a lot” of money and started a new fund to recruit and elect minority candidates.
Ashford held the 2nd District seat for one term ending in 2016, when he lost to Rep. Don Bacon. Now Ashford and Eastman are vying to compete against Bacon in next year’s general election.
Ashford said that Dingell is his friend and that it shouldn’t be surprising that a congresswoman would endorse a former colleague. He said he didn’t know what she planned to say.
“She chose to say that and I think it was based on the relationship that we’d had,” he said. “No one said anything negative about Kara Eastman or anybody else.”
Dingell and the other headliner, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, had also appeared at a fundraiser for Ashford earlier that day.
Ashford said Kleeb and other party officials have not offered any support to him.
The state party organized the event, including the speakers, but Kleeb said she didn’t know in advance what they would say.
At least one party official has weighed in on the race: Rhoades, who is chairwoman of the Douglas County Democratic Party and who has contributed to Eastman’s campaign.
Rhoades said the county party, like the state party, will remain neutral. She said she committed to supporting Eastman when she believed Ashford didn’t plan to run for the seat.
“I’m not sure that recruiting surrogates to come in and make an endorsement is the same as me making a personal donation,” Rhoades said.