Nebraska’s insurgent Eastman: Won because “we were new and fresh”
Kara Eastman emerges victorious in the mid-May Democratic congressional primary in Nebraska’s Omaha-based 2nd congressional district. | Nati Harnik/AP

OMAHA, Neb.—Kara Eastman, the upset winner of the mid-May Democratic congressional primary in Nebraska’s Omaha-based 2nd congressional district, says she won because “we were new and fresh” and “able to excite the base.”

And the proof of that? Democratic primary turnout doubled, compared to 2014, she said in a telephone press conference arranged by her top backer, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Eastman ran on a platform of Medicare for All, curbing the costs of prescription drugs, raising the minimum wage, and common-sense solutions to mass shootings in the nation’s schools, among other progressive issues.

“My daughter came to me after Parkland” – the mass school shooting in Florida – “and said she was now afraid to go to school,” Eastman said. That helped push Eastman into the congressional race.

Eastman beat the favored candidate of the Democratic establishment, ex-Rep. Brad Ashford, 51.4 to 48.6 percent among 39,352 voters. Incumbent Republican Don Bacon, who unseated Ashford two years ago, was unopposed in the GOP primary.

The establishment, represented by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, endorsed Ashford, a Republican-turned-Democrat who had served in the heavily Republican state legislature as an independent. He had one of the most-conservative House Democratic voting records during his tenure on Capitol Hill. The campaign finance committee (PAC) associated with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., gave $10,000 to Ashford’s campaign.

It didn’t help. Eastman, a working mom – she’s a social worker – whose only previous official post was as a community college board member, ran a “campaign that focused on who I am, my background as a community leader and college board member and as someone who puts the needs of people above those of special interests.”

And though she’s not a union member – she also ran a pro-kids non-profit group – Eastman’s campaign website notes her great-uncle was the Carpenters president in Chicago.

Though Ashford outspent her, Eastman fired up the voters – even in a low-turnout election. That’s because, like other progressives running for seats everywhere from city council to Congress, she spent a lot of time door-knocking and in face-to-face contact.

Advocacy for raising the minimum wage helped her connect to Omaha-area voters, Eastman explained. “People are working two or three jobs and still can’t pay their bills,” she said.

The PCCC, which helped provide campaign volunteers to Eastman, is now going to chip in with cash, too, and so will the campaign finance committee for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a Painter and the caucus co-chair.

It’s also going to help her raise more money in small-dollar donations from individuals “to get organized against a big-money Republican” – Bacon – “in November,” Pocan said. “If we can help her, and other candidates, even more, then we can take the House.”

That will not be easy, even in the least-red part of deep-red Nebraska, the Omaha area. In the last election cycle, 2015-16, then-incumbent Ashford outraised Bacon by about $100,000 ($722,671-$623,183) but 43 percent of Bacon’s money came from outside the district, compared to one-third of Ashford’s.  Bacon beat Ashford 49 percent to 48 percent, with a margin of just over 3,400 votes.

In her primary race against Ashford, Eastman raised $230,000 from small donors. And she refused to take PAC (campaign finance committee) money. The Democratic establishment argued nobody could do better than Ashford in the general election.

Pocan, citing Eastman’s race, Ironworker Randy Bryce’s campaign for the now-open seat Speaker Paul Ryan (R) is leaving,  and other PCCC-backed races around the U.S., retorted money isn’t everything.

“For Democrats to win in red and purple districts” such as in Omaha and in Ryan’s Wisconsin bailiwick, “we must have a progressive message to inspire people,” Pocan declared. “If the people will lead, the leaders will follow. Our goal is to get our so-called leaders to enact these policies.”

That message must be put in pragmatic terms, Eastman pointed out. She was able to convince a majority of the voting Democrats that Medicare for All – derided by the party establishment as a Bernie Sanders pipe dream – makes sense because it would save the country money on medical care, by eliminating the insurers and their overhead.

And it’s not just Medicare for All, she said. “Even in Nebraska, we have to make people aware that Medicaid,” the medical program for the poor and disabled, “is under attack” by Bacon and other congressional Republicans.

Big money in politics is one big reason for such attacks, Eastman and Pocan said. “Our candidates can connect the dots” between campaign contributions and anti-worker anti-people policies, added the PCCC moderator on the call.

Eastman said she refused PAC money “because we believe we should get that money out of politics. The problem is the outsized influence of moneyed interests over what the people and the voters want.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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