Democratic voters in Nebraska’s 2nd District could use the May 15 primary as an opportunity to weigh in on the national party debate over whether Democrats should take a no-compromises approach to support of abortion rights.
The two Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, former congressman Brad Ashford and nonprofit executive Kara Eastman, both support abortion rights.
But Ashford supports some restrictions on abortion while Eastman supports none. And beyond that, the issue highlights the two candidates’ differing approaches to getting things done. Ashford says he has made a career of brokering compromises and working with the other side, while Eastman argues that some issues are too important to compromise on.
The winner of the election will face U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican who opposes abortion.
Eastman has been trying to position herself to the left of Ashford on several issues, and abortion is no exception. She floated the issue in October when she tweeted that Ashford had “voted against women’s healthcare choices” when he was a state senator in 2009.
The 2009 bill she was referring to was introduced as a measure that would have required women to view an ultrasound, if one is performed.
The law that Ashford voted for was a compromise measure, which clarified that a woman would not be required to view the ultrasound.
The legislative bill might be familiar to Omahans who were paying attention during last year’s mayoral election. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders drew intense criticism around the country for supporting Democratic mayoral candidate Heath Mello, who had voted for that same bill and who opposes abortion.
That grew into a national debate over whether the Democratic Party should support candidates who oppose abortion rights.
Ari Kohen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the primary election will be an opportunity for Democratic voters with strong feelings about abortion to promote their positions.
“Obviously the Mello election in particular showed us that people in Nebraska care a lot about this issue and people care about it on both sides, like they do across the country,” he said.
But ultimately, Kohen said, the differing positions by Ashford and Eastman would likely lead to nearly identical outcomes on the kinds of votes that Congress generally takes on abortion.
In 2009, Ashford was a state senator and the chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
He said the measure involving ultrasounds was a compromise intended to stop what he saw as unconstitutional legislation from advancing.
“I thought about it a lot and tried to carve out something that would be fair and preserve a woman’s right to health care,” he said.
Ashford has long supported abortion rights, even when he was a registered Republican. And in his two years in Congress, he voted with Planned Parenthood 100 percent of the time, according to VoteSmart.
But he said he would be open to restrictions on abortions in the “latter terms” of pregnancy and some restrictions on minors seeking an abortion, such as a requirement that they obtain parental consent.
Eastman said, if elected, that wouldn’t be her approach. Eastman said she would not support any restrictions on abortions.
“It’s really easy as legislators, as politicians, to say we’re going to compromise about a law,” she said. “But the reality is, the people who are being compromised are women.”
Both candidates said their goal is to reduce the number of abortions by providing women access to affordable health care, child care and other necessities.
Eastman said she’s sought the endorsement of some pro-abortion rights groups. And Planned Parenthood has supported Ashford in the past.
Whoever wins the primary will offer a stark contrast with Bacon, who opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother.
“Though this election will likely be centered on our growing economy and strengthening our national security, the issue of protecting innocent life is extremely important to Don and to many of the voters in the Second District,” said Bacon’s campaign manager, Mary Jane Truemper.
“Bacon is on the record as firmly pro-life, and we look forward to discussing this issue with the candidate who wins the Democratic primary.”