Joe Biden is surging in the polls and his campaign is looking to run up the Democrat’s Electoral College numbers in unexpected places—like Omaha.
Political junkies know that Nebraska is one of two states—the other is Maine—that assign electors for president not according to the statewide vote but rather on the basis of voting in individual congressional districts. That distinction has made the Omaha-based Second Congressional District a presidential battleground, as well as a bellwether for the nationwide campaign of progressive Democrats to build up their power in Congress by flipping key US House seats.
Nebraska is a historic Republican stronghold, and Trump still leads statewide. But as the wheels come off the president’s reelection campaign, at least some Nebraska Republicans are distancing themselves from a president who Senator Ben Sasse this week ripped as a political liability who has “flirted with white supremacists” and whose family “has treated the presidency like a business opportunity.”
Sasse is a cynical political player who is positioning for what he imagines will be a post-election scramble to redefine the GOP. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t right to recognize that Trump’s “stupid political obsessions” are alienating voters in this election season. Or when he observes:
If young people become permanent Democrats because they’ve just been repulsed by the obsessive nature of our politics, or if women who were willing to still vote with the Republican Party in 2016 decide that they need to turn away from this party permanently in the future, the debate is not going to be, you know, “Ben Sasse, why were you so mean to Donald Trump?” It’s going to be “What the heck were any of us thinking that selling a TV-obsessed narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea?” It is not a good idea.
If a Trump derailment causes a “Republican bloodbath” in November, as Sasse suggests is possible, the best measure of it could come in Omaha and the suburban communities of Douglas and Sarpy counties that make up Nebraska-2.
A new Congressional Progressive Caucus poll from the district has Biden leading 53-42, while a recent New York Times/Siena College survey has him up 48-41. FiveThirtyEight, the political prognostication site, now says, “Biden is favored to win Nebraska’s 2nd District.”
But that’s not the only big win Democrats could score in Nebraska-2, and in a number of swing districts like it across the country. While much of the attention to the district has been on Biden’s bid for its Electoral College vote, an even more striking breakthrough could occur in the campaign for its US House seat.
Progressive Democrat Kara Eastman, who came within 5,000 votes of winning the seat in 2018, is surging in this year’s race against Republican incumbent Don Bacon. The October 8 Progressive Caucus poll has Eastman leading Bacon 47-45, and among early voters who have already cast ballots—roughly one-fifth of those surveyed—she’s up 59-36.
If Eastman wins, it will be a major victory for progressive forces, on a par with this year’s primary wins by House candidates Marie Newman in Illinois, Jamaal Bowman in New York, and Cori Bush in Missouri—high-profile contenders who, like Eastman, have run this year with backing from Justice Democrats. Like a number of other grassroots groups, Justice Democrats argue that the party needs to embrace progressive policies and candidates who, in the spirit of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seek to push the Democratic Party and Congress in bolder directions.
Eastman has twice beaten more cautious, establishment-tied Democrats in Nebraska primaries. After her 2018 primary win, she got little help from national Democrats. This year, Democratic insiders poured resources into a campaign to beat her for the nomination. Yet she swept to a 62-31 victory.
Now, she’s getting more national party support as strategists sense a win is within reach. With that said, Eastman’s still a grassroots-focused candidate, who celebrates the small-dollar donations that helped her to significantly out-raise Bacon in the latest fundraising quarter.
Eastman is running as a champion of economic, social, and racial justice who is prepared to address the climate crisis and advocates for a foreign policy that’s focused on “negotiation, diplomacy and alliance building in order to prevent unnecessary conflict in the world.” She argues for Medicare for All as “the most pragmatic and practical solution to this problem,” explaining, “We need to untether employment from health insurance. Covid-19 makes this case even CLEARER. I’m on the RIGHT side of history with this issue and am unafraid to say it.”
That kind of talk has won her strong backing from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who points out that Eastman is “facing the same incumbent Republican she came within just 1.9% of defeating two years ago while running on a strong progressive platform that prioritizes the needs of working people in Omaha and beyond.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Mark Pocan calls Eastman “one of the best candidates running anywhere in the country.” Pocan, who has traveled to Nebraska to campaign with her, says, “It would be a huge message to have a smart progressive like Kara Eastman elected from Omaha. That would be another signal that people favor progressive issues everywhere, and that they will vote for smart progressives who run on those issues.”