Trying to Beat Republicans in the Midwest With Different Shades of Blue

Trying to Beat Republicans in the Midwest With Different Shades of Blue
Illustration:Jim Cooke (GMG)

OMAHA—The Rotary Club of Downtown Omaha is not the kind of place where you expect to hear a politician talk about the benefits of single-payer healthcare. But on a Wednesday afternoon in late September, Democratic House candidate Kara Eastman made her case. She did so in front of a room full of businesspeople who live and work in a city where health insurance is a major industry, and who expressed more worries during the question and answer session about the national debt and a lack of bipartisanship in Congress than the plight of Nebraska’s uninsured. To do so, she talked about her mother.

“In 2016, my mom was diagnosed with cancer for the fifth time,” she told the crowd. “And she was telling me about her prescriptions, and kind of matter-of-factly said, ‘My doctor wants me to take this pill that’s $2,500, and the problem is I’m already paying $800 a month for prescriptions.’

“I asked her what it meant that she wouldn’t be taking this pill, and she said it meant that she wouldn’t be able to leave the house,” Eastman continued. “And that was true until she passed away, one year ago today.”

“This is about my feeling that healthcare is a right in the United States and we should be providing healthcare to people, so they don’t have to choose like my mom did.”

Eastman, who is a vocal supporter of Medicare for All, is a very different sort of Democratic candidate for the Nebraska Second Congressional District, which—with the exception of a two-year period earlier this decade—has been represented by a Republican continuously since 1995. But Eastman has embraced her differences from the typical sort of conservative Democrat who runs in this district; when a would-be constituent asked her what she’d do about “entitlements” in the context of the federal deficit—a question that was echoed several times during the Q&A portion—she responded: “I don’t consider them entitlements, I consider them earned benefits.”

For years, the conventional wisdom of the Democratic Party has been that a candidate like Eastman—a social worker by trade who embraces an expansion of the safety net—would doom the party in swing districts such as this one. Groups backing Eastman’s opponent, the freshman Rep. Don Bacon, have painted her as an extremist, with the Paul Ryan-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund running ads in the district slamming her for supporting a “$32 trillion government takeover of healthcare.”

Less than three hours south of Omaha, a similar dynamic is playing out in Kansas’ Third Congressional District. A Republican incumbent who stresses his independence—in this case, Rep. Kevin Yoder—is facing his toughest re-election bid yet, in a state that’s turned sharply to the right in recent years. But in that race, the Democratic nominee is Sharice Davids: a lawyer, retired MMA fighter, and former White House fellow who’s taking the path more well-traveled, aligning herself with the more moderate politics of the mainstream Democratic Party.

Although the basis for comparison between Eastman and Davids, their districts, and their states is far from perfect, it’s a good test case for the central question facing Democrats and the left in both swing districts that have trended to the right in recent years, and, more broadly, in solid red states like Nebraska and Kansas: How do you reverse those losses and begin to defeat the Republican Party again?

For Davids, that means appealing to bipartisanship in an attempt to win over moderate voters. For Eastman, that means advocating for bold action on issues personal to so many Americans (and to her), like healthcare.

“This is not just about my mom anymore,” Eastman told the Rotary Club crowd of her campaign. “This is about my feeling that healthcare is a right in the United States and we should be providing healthcare to people, so they don’t have to choose like my mom did.”

The night before Eastman spoke, people gathered in a private room at Spirit World, a bar and liquor store about 10 minutes southwest of downtown Omaha. They were there for an informational meeting about the Omaha chapter of the New Leaders Council—an organization which aims, per its mission statement, to train “diverse and highly skilled new progressive leaders who rise to the top of their fields, working together across sectors and in their local cities to build, expand, and improve the progressive infrastructure necessary for strong democracy, social justice, and equal opportunity.”

In other words, this room should’ve been chocked full of enthusiastic Kara Eastman supporters.

Danielle Powell and Lucas LaRose were fellows in the program in 2017, and both are active observers of local politics. “[I’ve been involved in] activism, close to 10 years. Politics, two. Like most people,” Powell said, laughing as she sipped from a glass of wine.

Almost immediately, though, she corrected herself. Several years ago, she was kicked out of Grace University—a small Christian college in Omaha which closed earlier this year—for being in a relationship with another woman, a story which made national news in 2013 when the university billed her for tuition for a semester of school which she was prevented from completing.

“I had to really face the facts that there are laws and legislations in place that allowed for that to happen legally,” she said of the episode. “And that kind of started me on my journey in my fight for equity and for legislation that actually aligns with what we claim to be as a country…I think my identity, who I am naturally, requires me to be engaged and to care.”

Powell, who’s from the Black Hills of South Dakota but has lived in Omaha for 11 years, said she’s excited not just by the Eastman campaign, but by the national trend of women becoming candidates for Congress and other offices. “I don’t believe in voting for someone based on their gender identity,” she said. “But I’m very aware of the inequity based on gender that has set the precedent for the political environment thus far, so I’m excited to see that change.”

LaRose—a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska who grew up on the tribe’s reservation in Thurston County, NE, and a lawyer who specializes in federal tribal issues—described himself as “a little more moderate” in his views. And while he said he was surprised when Eastman defeated former Congressman Brad Ashford in the primary, he was optimistic about her chances in November.

“I think Kara is a good candidate. She’s very authentic, so people want to believe her and her message,” he said. “She’s got this energy and vigor about her that people want to believe as well.”

Eastman’s narrow win in the Democratic primary over Ashford was a shock to many in Nebraska and elsewhere. Ashford, a former Republican member of the state legislature, first won election in 2014 and lost two years later, and had the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But in an upset, Eastman won by a margin of less than a thousand votes.

“It’s a game, it’s a machine, it’s an ugly machine”

Eastman poses the Democrats’ best opportunity for a high-profile win this year in Nebraska, where the Republican Party has a voter registration advantage of over 230,000 and where every member of the congressional delegation and statewide elected official is a Republican. One reason for that, as Powell reminded me, is that Omaha is not representative of the whole state.

“I would agree that the assumptions are correct in regards to [Nebraska] being very white and conservative, but I think what’s overlooked is that Omaha has a third of the state’s population,” Powell said. “North Omaha has a very rich African-American history. A lot of people don’t know Malcolm X was from here, Gabrielle Union, Roxane Gay…People don’t know a lot about Omaha, and so it’s easy to kind of blanket everything within the context of Nebraska.”

But LaRose said that if Eastman wants to win in a district where Republicans still have a 12,000-plus voter registration advantage over Democrats, she’ll have to make bigger inroads with moderate voters. “I think her bonafides, to her supporters, they’ve been established already,” he said. “But there’s people here who look at the politics and the back and forth and go, ‘I don’t really fit in either of these [parties.].’

“I think there’s a large segment out there, I don’t want to call them the ‘silent majority,” he said. “But I think there’s an element that’s been turned off by what politics have turned into.”

Powell, for her part, embodies a struggle that faced a lot of liberal and progressive voters both this year and in 2016. While she described herself as a political radical, it was clear that she views electoral politics in more pragmatic terms. “It’s a game, it’s a machine, it’s an ugly machine,” she said. “If we’re not going to dismantle the machine, we have to be real that it’s built on some very ugly precedents and histories, and so it’s not going to be this utopian thing that we want it to be.”

But, still, at this moment, she said, “the moderate just seems convenient.”

Earlier that day in Dundee, the Omaha neighborhood where both she and (uh) Warren Buffett live, Eastman—whose only elected position has been a seat on the board of governors for a local community college—explained to Splinter that she initially didn’t think that “someone like me” could get elected to Congress. But after the 2016 presidential election, she said, it “seemed like we were willing to accept newcomers and outsiders to the political systems.” (She quickly added that it would “be nice to have people who make sane, sound decisions.”)

Dr. Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska-Omaha professor and self-described “traditional Democrat” who was an aide to Peter Hoagland, a three-term Democratic congressman from the district in the 1980s and ‘90s, said that any Democrat would have a problem in the district—which encompasses all of Douglas County and some of its neighbor, Sarpy County—but that someone like Eastman might have more trouble than a moderate like Ashford. “It’s a long, difficult uphill battle [for Eastman],” Landow said. “I think that, left to its own devices, this district will almost always vote Republican, and Don Bacon has an excellent profile to run in this district.

“If the wave is big enough and strong enough and widespread enough…it could sweep her in,” he added, “[Then] the question becomes—although you don’t want to take the cart before the horse—how long could she stay in? Not just her, but any Democrat?”

Polling for the general election has been mixed: A New York Times live poll showed Bacon with a nearly double-digit lead, but a more recent one released by Eastman’s campaign showed Bacon with a four-point lead, within the margin of error. In terms of fundraising, Bacon has slightly outraised Eastman so far—$2.5 million to a little over $2 million—and has roughly $480,000 more cash on hand. Eastman’s campaign suffered another blow when the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC told Roll Call last week that it had pulled committed funding from her race to reroute it to a competitive race in Iowa.

But there’s reason to believe that Eastman could pull off her second upset this year, particularly if the blue wave that the Democrats are seeking materializes. Eastman—who has pledged not to take corporate PAC money—significantly outraised Bacon in the last quarter, $1.25 million to about $550,000, according to the Omaha World-Herald, and over 90 percent of her fundraising came from individual donations. And although yard signs have long been derided by campaign workers and experts, it seemed as though every neighborhood in Omaha I drove in for the three days I was there was inundated with Eastman signs.

“The conventional wisdom is that we run a conservative Democrat and they lose, or they win by a tiny amount and then they lose, and we say, ‘See? Democrats don’t win here”

Bacon, like other embattled Republican incumbents attempting to hold onto their seats this year, has attempted to occupy a space where he maintains a veneer of independence but isn’t actively pissing off Donald Trump. But he voted with Republicans on some of their most unpopular agenda items this session, including for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. That could backfire in a state where advocates successfully got statewide Medicaid expansion on the ballot in November. (Currently, Nebraska is one of 17 states that has no Medicaid expansion; as of the 2016 American Community Survey, about 180,000 Nebraskans didn’t have health insurance.)

It’s on healthcare where the contrast between Bacon and Eastman couldn’t be more stark. “The majority of people agree that Medicare for All is the right direction for the country, and so many people tell stories similar to what my mom went through,” Eastman told me at a coffee shop which proudly displays her campaign sign, as well as those of other Democratic candidates, in the front window. “There are definitely people who are skeptical and I think that part of it is that it’s such a new concept….there’s some confusion about it, there’s definitely more we have to talk about and think through, and we might need to take a regional approach or a pilot program or at least a public option for prescriptions.

“But,” she said, “too many people are dying because they don’t have healthcare.”

Eastman acknowledged that she has doubters. “The conventional wisdom is that we run a conservative Democrat and they lose, or they win by a tiny amount and then they lose, and we say, ‘See? Democrats don’t win here,” Eastman said. “I just put out the platform that aligns with my values and aligns with the values of the people I’ve been working with in the community for 12 years.

“So many people are struggling,” she continued. “They’re wanting their policymakers to work for them. I think that’s such an important piece of government that we have to remind people of, that the government works for us.”

Less than three hours south, voters in the Kansas Third Congressional District, which encompasses the suburbs of Kansas City, MO, are facing a somewhat similar dilemma: whether or not to send a Democrat to D.C. as their House representative for the first time in eight years. It’s up for debate which casual food chain the Democrats’ path to a majority runs through, but if there is one, it’s clear where it’ll begin: in places like a nondescript storefront in a Kansas City, KS, strip mall whose windows feature campaign signs for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in one of the few blue bastions in one of the reddest states in the country.

Davids is the perfect example of how the reaction to Trump has produced a bench of Democratic candidates across the country who more accurately reflect what America looks like.

Rashane Hamby is a Kansas Democratic Party organizer in her native Wyandotte County, one of the two counties in the state that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. She said she’s been involved in politics since high school, after which she moved to California and lived there for six years before coming back to Kansas in 2015. “I got involved with nonprofits and different local issues, but in 2016 I went to caucus for Bernie Sanders,” Hamby said. She entered the caucus as a registered independent, and ultimately ended the campaign as a delegate for Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

That year, Sanders comfortably won both the Kansas and Nebraska Democratic caucuses over Hillary Clinton. In the Kansas Third’s congressional primary two years later, however, Sharice Davids defeated five others, including Brent Welder—a former Sanders delegate whose campaign saw a late-in-the-race visit from both Sanders and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—to win the Democratic primary.

Wyandotte County, where Hamby is working, is one of the two counties which make up the vast majority of the district, which is located in the eastern part of the state. Wyandotte is firmly working class and, by at least one measure, one of the most diverse in the country. The other, where the majority of the voters come from, is Johnson County, the largest and wealthiest county in the state. When Davids won her August primary, she did so by narrowly defeating Welder and the other candidates in Johnson, even though Welder won nearly 60 percent of the vote in Wyandotte. (The district also includes a sliver of Miami County.)

In some ways, Davids is the perfect example of how the reaction to Trump has produced a bench of Democratic candidates across the country who more accurately reflect what America looks like. Davids, a 37-year old former MMA fighter, would—as a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation—be at least one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, along with New Mexico Democrat Deb Haaland. (The district Haaland is running to represent is rated as safely Democratic by the Cook Political Report.)

Davids would also be the first LGBTQ member of Congress from Kansas, a distinction that isn’t lost on her critics from the left. “As a queer person myself, even though Sharice isn’t great, it does feel good to have some representation,” Kansas City Democratic Socialists of America co-chair Phoenix Victoria, a canvasser in Wyandotte County, told me at a pizza spot near the University of Missouri-Kansas City where I met her and two other leaders in the chapter.

Her opponent, Rep. Kevin Yoder, is a remarkably vulnerable four-term congressman who, like Bacon, has tried to emphasize his independence, although more often than not it’s resulted in him looking like a squish. Perhaps the most notable thing Yoder has done in office since his election in 2010 has been going skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee, but it hasn’t mattered much until now—he’s won every single race by double-digits.

“On a surface level, this is just the year of women, so I think that element has to do with [Davids’ win],” Hamby said. “And I think her messaging and her center approach in Johnson County helped…unfortunately, I think that with Alexandria [Ocasio-Cortez] coming, the optics looked like we were putting two women of color against each other, although if you’re close to this, you know they’re two opposites on policy.”

On policy, Davids is running a very traditional Democratic campaign. In a questionnaire with the Kansas City Star during the primary campaign, she stopped short of calling for Medicare for All or for Trump’s impeachment. In a podcast interview in July, Davids was asked point-blank if she would support abolishing ICE. She responded, “I would, I would,” and had a pretty good justification:

“When you talk about the historical context of ICE being rooted in treating a group of people as if there’s a threat or that they’re ‘the enemy’ or something to that effect,” she said on the podcast, “that’s exactly how the federal government approached Native Americans until not that long ago … I just feel like I’m constantly seeing parallels between what is happening right now and what has happened through the course of our federal government’s history.”

She quickly backtracked. Ask Davids about abolishing ICE now and she’ll insist that she was merely being inarticulate. (Several requests to speak with Davids for comment were not returned.) And in a mostly off-the-record interview with conservative Star columnist Steve Rose, Rose wrote that Davids wanted “to go on the record separating herself from [Ocasio-Cortez’s] campaign and its left-wing positions,” and was “adamant” that she was not a “Bernie Sanders Democrat.”

Victoria, the DSA co-chair, recalled that she was initially impressed by Davids when it came to immigration. “I met her at a rally outside of Yoder’s office, and I think [if] that Sharice Davids ran, that Sharice Davids would win,” she said. ”I do think immigration is a big issue for people…if [she’s] not for abolishing ICE, at least be against all of this reactionary propaganda when it comes to immigration.” (Davids, for her part, has said she supports a clear path to citizenship for undocumented people, and her campaign website touts her desire to “work across the aisle to develop common sense policy” on immigration.)

“I think when you’re trying to get young Democrats out to vote, sometimes you need something different”

Whatever the debate about Davids’ more conservative approach, it seems to be working, at least for now. She doubled Yoder’s fundraising and then some in the last quarter, and in recent polling, she’s been up by the high single-digits. Earlier this month, McClatchy reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s equivalent of the DCCC, was pulling significant amounts of money from its campaign in support of Yoder.

That’s not to say there isn’t any excitement for Davids on the ground. Gary Enrique Bradley-Lopez, a 20 year old University of Missouri-Kansas City student who was born and raised in Kansas City, KS, and is a leader in Young Democrats organizations in Kansas, considers Davids to be something of a political hero. “I think when you’re trying to get young Democrats out to vote, sometimes you need something different,” he said, adding with a laugh, “and maybe Johnson County’s trying to find its woke card,” a reference to her win over Welder in Kansas’ biggest, wealthiest county.

He also praises her ability to make connections with voters. “My dad’s not one to go out there and vote, he’s someone who votes mostly in presidential elections,” he told me. “But Sharice has this—when you have this voter contact face to face with a person, that’s a lot. And she had that with my dad, and that right there made him want to go out there and vote for her, because he knew her.”

Davids’ approach appears to be paying off in terms of polling. But in September, Hamby said that Davids should more forcefully emphasize areas where she’s progressive.

“I think what Sharice has done fabulously is outline her story. We get a sense of who she is and where she’s come from, and those things are definitely valuable,” Hamby said. “I think that where there needs to be a pivot, especially now as we move closer, is really defining where she stands on issues and not so much playing defense, but playing offense. I can see that as they start to talk about healthcare more, but when you say you’re for healthcare, what does that mean?”

To Victoria, the DSA co-chair, Davids’ politics look like more of the same, and she’s skeptical that the sort of platform that the candidate is running on is the way to reverse Kansas’ rightward lurch long-term.

“Even if she does manage to pull out a win, you’re seeing the same slow death of the Democratic Party,” Victoria said. “They’re coming up against stronger, more hateful, and more reactionary right-wing rhetoric. And they have nothing to counter it with except, ‘We’re not the other guys.’ That’s not an effective strategy.”

Beyond Davids, it’s clear that the Democratic Party’s turn to the left in this cycle has, to some extent, been over-exaggerated. The Blue Dogs of the waves of 2006 and 2008 are mostly gone, but there’s an equally limited number of self-identified socialists (such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan) or even left-wing Democrats (such as Deb Haaland) with strong chances to be elected to Congress next year. Even fewer of them are in swing seats.

“Look, we’re never going to agree on everything”

Throughout the campaign, Eastman has balanced her longstanding desire for progressive agenda items like free college, a $15 minimum wage, and Medicare for All with the kind of talk about deficits and fiscal conservatism that tends to make people on the left wary.

At a recent debate with Bacon, Eastman referred to the Trump tax cuts as “big government” and criticized the cost of Trump’s proposed border wall, which Bacon voted for, while also criticizing its inhumanity. And at the Rotary Club town hall, she likened her experience as the CEO of the the non-profit she started, the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, to managing the federal budget.

“As a non-profit leader, I consider myself to be pretty fiscally conservative, because you have to be,” Eastman told the Rotary Club crowd after explaining her healthcare stance. “That’s what I think we need to be doing at the federal government [level] right now, is being very, very careful with our resources, and proving that if we invest up front in preventing thing that shouldn’t be happening, it’ll save us money in the long run.”

As different as Eastman and Davids are on policy, it’s in this rhetoric—of working together, reaching across the aisle, and so on—where they’re taking similar approaches to try and bring more moderate voters into their coalition.

At the end of the question and answer portion, Eastman was asked about trade agreements and NATO. She gave a pretty standard answer about trying to avoid the alienation of allies, before stopping. “I’m seeing some shaking heads,” she said.

“Look, we’re never going to agree on everything,” she continued, making one last pitch to the crowd. “I talk to people at the doors all day who don’t agree with me on stuff. But I’m trying to teach my daughter, who’s 17, that we have to be able to engage with these conversations and have hard conversations and find some common ground and some solutions. I think that’s we need in our country right now.”

There was a slight pause. Then, the crowd began politely applauding.

Correction: 2:47 p.m. ET: Due to a typo, a previous version of this article said that Davids told Rose she was a “Bernie Sanders Democrat.” Davids told him she was not a Bernie Sanders Democrat.

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