/Nebraska House race may be bellwether for Democrats

Nebraska House race may be bellwether for Democrats

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska is preparing to hold the first statewide in-person election in more than a month, offering clues not only about the wisdom of going to the polls during a pandemic but also about the mood of Democrats in a key congressional district.

Despite pleas from Democrats that the state shift to an all-mail election or delay Tuesday’s vote as other states have done, Republican leaders insisted the state proceed even as they encouraged people to request absentee ballots.

It will be the first statewide vote since Wisconsin’s much-criticized April 7 primary Although that election will be remembered for long lines, a surge of absentee ballots could mean Nebraska’s vote will be notable for a ghost town feel at polling places.

As of Thursday, voters had cast 321,528 absentee ballots, surpassing the total vote in the 2016 primary. And given that more ballots are likely in the mail, that probably will mean the few who show up at polling places will have plenty of social distance.

“Voter participation in early balloting has reached unprecedented levels,” Secretary of State Bob Evnen said.

Apart from Nebraska’s statewide election, special elections also will be held Tuesday in Wisconsin and California to fill open congressional seats.

Even if little excitement is expected at Nebraska polling places, the results of the voting will certainly be interesting, especially in the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District.

Voters will choose between Kara Eastman and Ann Ashford for the Democratic nomination to face Republican Don Bacon. Eastman is a nonprofit consultant who supports Medicare for all, stricter gun laws and a higher minimum wage. Ashford is a self-described moderate candidate in the mold of likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Eastman lost to Bacon in 2018 by nearly 2 percentage points, as her support in Omaha was offset by Bacon’s stronger showing in suburban areas. Although Bacon beat Eastman after portraying her as too liberal for the district, she hasn’t shied away from her progressive beliefs.

In this April 14, 2020 photo, Nadette Cheney picks up a box of printed ballots as others work on preparing mail-in ballots at the Lancaster County Election Committee offices in Lincoln, Neb. Officials in Nebraska are forging ahead with plans for the state’s May 12 primary despite calls from Democrats to only offer voting by mail and concerns from public health officials that in-person voting will help the coronavirus spread.  (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) ORG XMIT: NENH208

“It’s really easy to peg candidates as one thing or another, but the reality is the policies I support and the things I talk about on the campaign trail are widely supported,” she said.

Ashford, whose husband Brad Ashford represented the district for one term before losing to Bacon, has taken jabs at Eastman in campaign ads, arguing that Medicare-for-all isn’t feasible and that the district needs someone who will work to achieve what’s politically possible in Washington. Ashford said she supports a public option, a government-sponsored insurance plan that would compete with private health insurance.

“People are looking for realistic solutions,” she said. “I think they always have, and when candidates throw out pie-in-the-sky ideas, that’s not helpful.”

A third candidate, Gladys Harrison, hasn’t generated nearly as much money or attention as Ashford and Eastman.

Vince Powers, a Democratic party activist and former state chairman, said voters are focused on who can beat Bacon and they’re hopeful that many voters have tired of President Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency. Despite concerns Eastman is more liberal than the district’s voters, Powers said her network of supporters and donors built up in the last election could give her an edge.

Tyler Law, former communication director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the lack of typical campaigning due to the coronavirus also could favor Eastman.

“If you already have an advantage, and the dynamics in the race get locked in place because of something like a pandemic, and you can’t do the face-to-face campaigning or door-knocking that’s so critical in an urban congressional district, I think that’s a huge advantage to the incumbent or whoever won the primary previously,” Law said.

Law said he doesn’t see a contradiction between Democrats nationally who are coalescing behind the moderate Biden and the possibility that those in the 2nd District will nominate the progressive Eastman.

“It would be on Kara Eastman to translate and sell her message to a moderate electorate,” Law said. “But I want to be clear, a lot of progressive candidates across the country won in moderate districts in 2018. It absolutely can be done this year.”

Wisconsin’s special election Tuesday is in a rural congressional district that didn’t experience the same problem with long lines that other places did in the state’s April 7 primary.

Trump carried the district by 20 points, more than 20 times his narrow marging in the state four years ago. The seat has been vacant since September, when Trump backer and former reality TV star Sean Duffy retired.

Tom Tiffany, a Republican state senator closely aligned with Trump, is vying for the seat against Tricia Zunker, a Democrat school board president backed by liberals who is seeking to become the first Native American elected to Congress from Wisconsin.

The California race pits Democrat Christy Smith against Republican Mike Garcia for a seat representing a suburban Los Angeles House district. They’re running to replace former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned after admitting to an affair with a campaign staffer. Democrats see it as a referendum on President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Garcia.

Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.