How Progressives Failed A Key Test In The Heartland

Kara Eastman was supposed to win this year. The polling looked good, she had come so close to winning the Omaha congressional seat in 2018, and this time, the national party was all in for her. Progressive activists were eager to show that their ideas could win outside heavily blue areas. And Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes metropolitan Omaha and a more rural area around a military base, was as good a place as any. 

But the vindication progressives had hoped for never materialized. Eastman lost last month to Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) by more than she had in 2018 (4.5 percentage points compared to 2 points two years ago). President-elect Joe Biden’s 6.5-point win in the district, four years after President Donald Trump won there, made Eastman’s defeat that much more frustrating. 

Eastman’s loss was a blow to Democrats hoping to expand their majority in the House. But it was an especially painful loss for the party’s progressive wing, which wanted to show it could do more than just oust incumbent Democrats in ultra-liberal seats. It wanted to demonstrate the viability of its preferred policies in the swing seats and states that determine control of Congress. The left touted Eastman’s race as a marquee opportunity to show that progressive policies designed to excite the party base are assets, rather than liabilities.

The party tried to do things differently than it had in 2018. After Eastman defeated former Rep. Brad Ashford (D) in the 2018 primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was late to endorse her and provided her relatively modest financial support. Bacon’s campaign heavily outspent Eastman until the final weeks. Eastman’s supporters believed an extra push from the party establishment would have pushed her over the finish line. 

This cycle, the DCCC tried to correct its mistake, endorsing Eastman from the moment she won her primary and spending $3.5 million to try to elect her with more modest support from progressive groups. 

Many of the forces that sank Eastman were out of her control. She received nearly 34,000 more votes than she had in 2018, but a surge in Republican turnout limited the impact of those gains. Ashford, the man Eastman defeated in the 2018 primary, worked against her. Eastman also defeated Ashford’s wife, Ann, in the 2020 primary, and Ashford endorsed Bacon, providing the GOP congressman with a valuable talking point. And plenty of Republicans who voted for Biden out of their disdain for Trump probably would not have elected a Democrat to Congress regardless of their positions or background. 

“Republicans just came out like crazy and voted for Biden and Bacon,” Eastman told HuffPost in an interview. “I personally don’t think it would have mattered who was running in my seat. I think the Democrat would have lost.”

But Eastman’s race also offers some lessons for progressives eager to win seats like hers in the future. Republicans succeeded in casting Eastman as a radical left-wing figure partly because of her support for Medicare for All, her positive comments about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and her affiliation with grassroots groups and causes associated with the movement to “defund the police.” 

What’s more, the progressive groups that had once been the foundation of Eastman’s support did little to offset the damage inflicted by Bacon and his allies, spreading small amounts of money between multiple TV ads in contravention of traditional campaign strategy.

“By the 2020 election cycle, she already had a definition and they spent several million dollars reinforcing that definition and making it even worse,” said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who previously served as a top aide to a Democratic mayor of Omaha and a Democratic member of Congress from Nebraska. “When there’s that kind of money floating around, you’ve got a pretty good chance of making it happen. And they did.”

The Creation Of ‘Comrade’ Kara

It’s not hard to see what progressives saw in Eastman. As a social worker and the founder of the lead safety nonprofit Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, Eastman boasts deep community roots in the district’s biggest population center. And she spoke movingly about how her mother’s struggle paying medical bills associated with cancer informed her commitment to providing health care as a right to all Americans.

Although she did not vote for Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary, she told Politico she was a “big Bernie Sanders fan” and shared that her daughter had canvassed for him. Eastman’s platform reflected her affinity for the Vermont senator. In that first congressional run, in particular, Eastman ran as an unabashed proponent of a Medicare for All, single-payer health care system, a $15 minimum wage and free tuition at public colleges. And unlike the national party, Eastman’s campaign embraced the activist left’s belief that turning out infrequent, liberal-leaning voters made catering to moderate Republicans unnecessary.

Since Eastman nearly unseated Bacon with little help from the national party during her first run, the plan seems to have worked. But in fact, the circumstances of the 2018 midterm elections were uniquely favorable for the left and did not necessarily provide a roadmap to victory in elections where the electorate would be less lopsided toward highly educated Democrats.

“2018 was a Democratic wave year,” said David Shor, a data scientist who consults for Democratic candidates and campaigns.

“In midterms, voters are much more educated. There are fewer working-class voters,” he added. “That creates a more fertile ground for highly ideological candidates.”

Instead of serving as a template for an even stronger performance during a presidential election year, Eastman’s freewheeling remarks during the 2018 campaign provided fodder for Republican attacks in what would turn out to be a more favorable environment for the GOP in 2020.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is House Republicans’ campaign arm, used these comments to characterize Eastman, whom they nicknamed “Comrade Kara,” as a socialist in the Sanders mold, rather than a Biden-style Democrat of the kind suburbanites and military families could stomach. One NRCC spot that aired more than 300 times beginning in early October featured a clip of Eastman telling a left-wing host in 2018, “Full disclosure: I love Bernie Sanders,” according to Kantar Media/CMAG. (All references to TV ads in this story rely on data from Kantar Media/CMAG.)

Republicans also dishonestly pulled a clip of Eastman mocking how Republicans say of her, “I’m a radical socialist.” One TV ad from the GOP super PAC Defending Main Street that aired more than 100 times replayed the clip of her without clarifying that she reiterated it to laugh at how preposterous the characterization was.

“What this really came down to was that Don Bacon is a moderate, commonsense Republican who is in line with the district, and Kara Eastman is a socialist who is far to the left of the district,” said NRCC spokesperson Bob Salera.

Another advantage for Republicans this election cycle was that Biden, who was expected to perform well in Omaha’s highly educated, Republican-leaning suburbs, was on record condemning Medicare for All in the strongest of terms.

The NRCC funded at least two TV ads using Biden’s words condemning Medicare for All to attack Eastman. The ads, which aired more than 600 times beginning in September, quoted Biden lamenting that Medicare for All would cost “$30 trillion” and would mean “Washington dictating to you, ‘You cannot keep the plan you have.’” Another NRCC spot that aired more than 300 times in October contrasted Eastman’s support for a Green New Deal with Biden’s opposition to it, deeming Eastman “too extreme for Joe Biden.”

“If you just look at how Biden performed versus Kara, Kara did not fit the district,” said Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb.

Struggling To Push Back

Eastman and Democrats hammered Bacon, in turn, for his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. As a freshman lawmaker in March 2017, Bacon said prior to voting for the repeal bill that would have allowed states to opt out of federal protections for people with preexisting conditions that he was changing his vote from “‘yes’ to ‘hell, yes.’” The phrase came up again and again in Democratic ads, albeit without the video evidence that gave Republican attacks against Eastman extra punch.

Campaigns and outside groups generally try to concentrate as much money as possible in individual ads to maximize the likelihood that voters will see a particular message. And the DCCC highlights the themes it wants those outside groups to amplify on an opposition research page ― or “red box” ― designed to circumvent campaign finance rules against coordinating with outside groups. In its red box on Eastman’s race, the DCCC said “voters in Omaha should see” that Bacon voted “hell yes” to repealing the ACA and for defunding Planned Parenthood.

Some of Eastman’s progressive allies, such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, amplified the red box message with six-figure digital ad buys. 

But other groups spread their resources thinly over a greater number of ads with differing themes ― a tactical mistake, according to several veteran campaign operatives. 

Justice Democrats’ pro-Eastman blitz ― funded jointly with MoveOn, the Sunrise Movement and the Working Families Party ― spent $60,000 on a TV ad hitting Bacon for voting against funding to clean up drinking water. The spot aired just 34 times, though it echoed themes in an ad funded by the End Citizens United PAC that aired more than 125 times. 

The progressive coalition spent another $167,000 on a TV ad that aired nearly 130 times emphasizing Bacon’s ACA repeal vote. A separate TV ad funded by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Rebellion PAC’s super PAC focusing on Bacon’s resistance to COVID-19 relief ― and a secondary mention of Bacon’s ACA repeal vote ― aired just 36 times. (The super PAC spent a total of $200,000 on Eastman’s behalf, including on cable TV ads not counted by Kantar Media/CMAG.)

Asked why Justice Democrats had decided to do a smaller ad buy about clean water, a Justice Democrats spokesperson said, “We had interest from the Working Families Party and other partners on that message.” The spokesperson noted that the ad expanded on the spot run by End Citizens United.

Justice Democrats did not join forces with the PCCC on a single, unified ad campaign because they were already in the process of producing their own ads when the groups approached one another about cooperating, according to the Justice Democrats spokesperson. The PCCC declined to comment for this story.

Landow, the veteran Nebraska Democrat and politics expert, blames the national party as well as progressive groups for a “bungled response” that failed to adequately shape the narrative.

“It was too little, too late and didn’t come close to hitting the nail on the head,” he said.

For his part, Bacon simply lied about the implications of his vote, co-opting the “hell yes” phrase as a description for his commitment to protecting people with preexisting conditions. He likely benefited from a national environment where Democratic attacks on the ACA repeal vote did not resonate as strongly as they had in 2018. 

Bacon, who is a retired general, also took pains to cast himself as the more moderate and bipartisan candidate in the race. For example, he funded an ad that featured a Black woman who said Bacon was the first Republican she was voting for.

“It was a referendum at the federal level on Trump and we couldn’t make the case that Bacon was a madman,” Crystal Rhoades, who sits on the Nebraska Public Service Commission and is the highest-ranking elected Democrat in the state, told HuffPost. “We didn’t do enough to tie them together.”

Eastman tried her own version of bipartisan jiujitsu with a TV spot that featured the endorsement of Republican state Sen. John McCollister. 

But she never settled on a clear response to attacks on her support for Medicare for All. She defended the policy on the merits during an October debate with Bacon. Yet in a campaign ad, she sought to skirt the issue by highlighting Biden’s endorsement of her bid and their shared commitment to lowering prescription drug prices and “expanding health care for all families.” 

“We know that if you’re running a campaign and you’re trying to explain things to people, then you’re losing,” Eastman said.

In ads and on the stump, Eastman ran as a crusader against corruption who refused corporate PAC money so voters could be confident that she would “put families first, not special interests.”

“I see people talking about, ‘Well, you just have to run on a strong economic message,’” Eastman said. “We did run on a strong economic message.”

Whether elevating validators like McCollister or promoting her plans to reduce prescription drug prices, Eastman found herself frustrated by her inability to cut through the narrative perpetuated by Republicans on the airwaves. She told HuffPost that she had greater success dispelling misconceptions in one-on-one conversations with voters.

But Eastman’s campaign paused its door-knocking program in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed literature drops in September in lieu of face-to-face conversations. The DCCC’s opposition to canvassing also prompted the state party to shelve its plans to canvass with heavy health precautions, according to Kleeb.

“I don’t think they ever came out and said, ‘If candidates door-knock, you will lose funding.’ But they said, ‘They cannot door-knock,’” she said. “That hurt Democrats everywhere.” 

The Don Kleine Debacle

In congressional races, Republicans ran 216 advertisements on broadcast television attacking Democrats for being anti-police and pro-riots. Out of that total, 157 ads that aired 103,000 times specifically blasted Democrats for their association with the slogan “defund the police.” 

Republicans ran at least three such TV spots that aired more than 900 times against Eastman. One Bacon campaign spot featured two Omaha policewomen warning that Eastman would throw cops under the bus “for her radical friends in New York” as an image of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) appeared on-screen. Another Bacon ad tying Eastman to riots in Portland, Oregon; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Omaha featured Tony Conner, the Black president of Omaha’s police union, declaring that Bacon would stand against “radicals who want to defund the police.”

Unlike some Democrats who faced down policing-related attacks by marshaling law enforcement officers of their own to affirm their pro-police credentials in TV ads, Eastman and her allies did not use TV ads to rebut claims that she was beholden to radical, anti-police forces.

But in public appearances, Eastman made clear that she does not support “defunding” the police. And unlike with some of Eastman’s other missteps, Republicans did not have footage of her saying anything that could be construed that way.

What they had instead was Eastman’s reaction to white bar owner Jake Gardner’s killing of James Scurlock, a young Black man, in downtown Omaha on May 30. Omaha, like other areas of the country, was swept up in a wave of protests against police brutality over the summer, some of which spilled into vandalism and looting. Scurlock was allegedly part of a group of people who broke the glass of Gardner’s bar and got into a fight with Gardner’s aging father. Video appeared to show him engaged in a physical scuffle with Gardner and his father, who were trying to guard their store, when Gardner shot him to death with his handgun. 

The following morning, Eastman denounced the killing on Twitter as a “cold-blooded murder.” 

But Don Kleine, a Democrat serving as Douglas County’s prosecutor since 2006, announced two days after the killing that after a review of grainy video of the incident, he was declining to press charges against Gardner. Scurlock had pinned Gardner to the ground and held his head in a headlock, according to Kleine. In his press conference announcing the decision, Kleine also blasted Eastman without naming her, arguing that her characterization of the killing was “reckless” and “dangerous to our community.” Republicans would end up using those comments in attack ads against Eastman.

The progression of the judicial process brought new headaches for Eastman. Scurlock’s family, Omaha’s Black community and progressive Nebraskans were outraged by Kleine’s initial decision not to prosecute, which they condemned as a rush to judgment. Under pressure, Kleine reversed his decision, convening a grand jury and appointing a special counsel to determine whether to bring charges. The grand jury indicted Gardner in September, for manslaughter, “terroristic threats” and other charges. Shortly before he was to turn himself in, he died by suicide in Oregon.

The indictment and the suicide sparked another round of recriminations in Omaha as Kleine held a press conference to dispute characterizations of Gardner as a Trump-loving vigilante who provoked an altercation with Scurlock, instead claiming that Scurlock was the one involved in “terrorizing” other people.

Kleine’s remarks angered Scurlock’s family and many Democrats. The Nebraska Democratic Party responded by passing a harshly worded resolution stating that Kleine’s handling of the Scurlock case “perpetuated white supremacy.” 

The move pushed Kleine to leave the Democratic Party and register as a Republican. Top Republicans in the state held a rally welcoming him to the Republican Party in early October with early voting underway. At the event, Kleine revealed that he had already cast his ballot for Trump, crediting Trump for being a “law-and-order guy.”

Many Nebraska Democrats fault Kleeb for passing a resolution that effectively drove a ranking elected official out of the party and heightening the apparent gulf between the state’s old guard of moderate and conservative Democrats and progressives like Eastman.

“That should have never happened,” said Ben Gray, the only Black member of the Omaha city council.

Kleeb, however, insists the resolution helped all Democrats on the ballot by showing people of color, young people and progressives that the party had their back.

“They saw us standing up to someone who was disparaging an African-American man who was shot by a racist bar owner,” she said.

Gray sees the Scurlock killing as a complicated one. He believes that Gardner should not have been taking the defense of his own stores into his hands and put himself in a situation where he would be confronting looters, but that once Gardner was accosted, he shot Scurlock in an effort to defend himself.

As a supporter of Eastman’s, Gray wishes that the Democratic congressional candidate had reserved judgment before calling the killing a “cold-blooded murder.”

“If I had my choice and I had been running the campaign, I wouldn’t have had her say anything,” Gray said. “I never say anything about an event until I know all the facts about an event.”

Yet despite her loss, Eastman has no regrets about her stand on behalf of Scurlock.

“Calling that murder to me doesn’t seem very bold,” she said. “It just seems commonsensical.” 

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