After a month and a half recess from the campaign trail, Democrat Kara Eastman is back.

Eastman — who tried to blaze a new path for Nebraska Democrats but ultimately fell 2 percentage points short on Nov. 6 — announced Thursday that she will seek a rematch against Republican Rep. Don Bacon in the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District.

Bacon noted that he has not yet been sworn in to his second term and questioned Eastman’s early announcement.

But Eastman, 47, said she announced her candidacy early in the interests of transparency and to quell rumors.

“I figured, well I’ll just let the voters, the district know what I’m going to do,” she said.

In a reprise of her argument from the 2018 cycle, Eastman painted Bacon as “extreme” and sought to tie the congressman to President Donald Trump. She also raised many of the same issues she focused on in 2018, particularly health care.

“Nebraskans deserve an independent voice who can bring people together and fight for the things we all need and deserve,” she said in a statement. “All Nebraskans should be able to get ahead when they work hard; that means having a living wage, healthcare, and affordable, healthy housing.”

Eastman also noted that Bacon opposed the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative, which Nebraska voters approved by more than 7 percentage points.

“We need somebody who’s going to talk about the issues that voters care about,” she said in an interview.

For his part, Bacon, 55, described Eastman as “too far left for Omaha” and said she has created divisions within her own party.

“I welcome her aboard,” Bacon said Thursday. “We’ll see if she wins the primary.”

He said his focus will be on doing a good job in the 116th Congress.

Also eyeing the seat is Democrat Ann Ashford, a lawyer whose husband, Brad, served in Congress for two years and lost in this year’s primary to Eastman. Ann Ashford declined to comment on Thursday.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb said she plans to meet with Eastman and that she’s already met with a handful of other candidates who are interested in running for the seat.

In the 2018 primary, Eastman ran a grassroots campaign against Brad Ashford, focusing on door-knocking and promoting issues such as “Medicare for all” and increasing the minimum wage.

Her campaign also sparred with the state Democratic Party, and it received lackluster support from national Democrats.

When asked if she thinks those fences can be mended, Eastman said she hopes that the Democratic Party will be able to come back together.

In a recent World-Herald opinion piece, Eastman said her campaign “won” because she ran with integrity and didn’t compromise her beliefs. She also swiped at those national Democrats who didn’t air commercials on her behalf as they had previously done for Ashford.

“If not having complete support from the national party means that I did not acquiesce to the party’s bland speaking points or want the party to personally attack my opponent, then I am grateful to have stood on my own,” she wrote. “As a first-time candidate for federal office, I believe that we won the most important battle — to change the political landscape here in the heartland.”

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not immediately respond to an email seeking response.

Eastman said her strategy will continue to be “going out and talking to and, most importantly, listening to voters.”

But, she added, “Of course we’ll have some new ideas and new people and new enthusiasm.”

The 2018 campaign also reignited a debate among Nebraska Democrats about how to win in a red state. The Ashfords and some other establishment Democrats argue that Democrats should reach out to independents and moderate voters. Eastman’s strategy was to fire up the base by promoting a progressive agenda.

Her 2020 candidacy — especially if Ann Ashford jumps in — will most likely be a continuation of that discussion of strategy.

Kleeb said there are a lot of reasons for a candidate to make an early announcement about running. “You plant the flag in the ground, you hope that any challengers decide not to do it, you try to get early endorsements of key leaders.”

Barry Rubin, a former executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party who supported Bacon over Eastman in 2018, said getting started early could give Eastman a fundraising advantage, allow her to continue to build grassroots support without interruption and possibly make other Democrats think twice about seeking the nomination.

“I assume it’s an effort to scare off primary challengers,” said Rubin, who is now a managing partner at Heartland Strategy Group. “Kara has a pretty significant grassroots base that she built up. I suppose those things may look ominous to a potential challenger.”

However, Rubin noted that Eastman will find a different electorate in 2020 than she did in 2018 — presidential election years bring out more voters than even a high-turnout midterm.

Also, with the Democratic Party getting rid of its presidential caucuses, 2020 will be the first time in Nebraska where the presidential nominee will be chosen in the primary, and where independents as well as registered Democrats can vote in the primary election.

“It’s more likely a candidate that will appeal to moderate and independent voters would be successful in a primary,” he said.

Kleeb, the party chairwoman, said the party as a whole needs to find a good strategy to win the 2nd District seat — where in the past decade Democrats have often come close but rarely prevailed.

“I think what you saw in 2018 with the historic wins of 40 seats in the House was that the candidates that looked and sounded like their communities won,” she said. “And so as chair of the party, that has been my mantra since I got elected, that all shades of blue are welcome within the Nebraska Democratic Party.”

World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.

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Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH.

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