Progressives Notch a Victory in Nebraska

US President Barack Obama and Rep Brad Ashford, Republican from Nebraska, step off Air Force One upon arrival at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska on January 13, 2016.  / AFP / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Nebraska congressman Brad Ashford could have used some help from President Obama in his primary on Tuesday night. MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party scored an upset victory in Tuesday’s House primary in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, nonprofit executive Kara Eastman leads former congressman Brad Ashford 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent—a difference of just more than 500 votes. Nebraska law calls for an automatic recount for any race where the margin of victory is 1 percent or less. The eventual Democratic nominee will face Republican Rep. Don Bacon in a general election that was considered a toss-up when Ashford, with strong establishment backing, was the heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

It’s not clear how Eastman’s nomination would affect the calculus for November, but the fact that the race could potentially be headed for a recount is remarkable, given Ashford’s incumbentlike advantages. He entered the primary as the heavy favorite and quickly secured the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which was betting that the former one-term congressman could win a rematch with Bacon, two years after Ashford lost by a single percentage point.

While the campaign was relatively civil, the policy differences between Eastman and Ashford were clear from the start. Eastman presented herself as a proud progressive. She had the backing of groups like the Working Families Party and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and she called for Medicare for all and a full repeal of the GOP tax law.* Ashford, meanwhile, talked up his history of working across the aisle and embraced his image as a pro-business politician, one who supports free trade deals and less government regulation.

Ashford also had plenty of political baggage from a decadeslong career in politics. He was first elected to the Nebraska Legislature as a Democrat in 1986, but then became a Republican two years later and ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a member of the GOP in 1994. While he eventually returned to the Democratic Party after a stint as an independent, he rarely toed the party line. During his successful 2014 congressional campaign, for instance, he said that he would not have voted for Obamacare.

The following year, his first in Congress, he voted for a GOP-authored Homeland Security–funding bill that would have undercut the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and for another GOP bill that would have forced President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. During this campaign, Ashford tried to reframe the funding vote around national security issues and said the pipeline vote was about “defending the process.”

National Democrats, however, were willing to forgive and forget all that if it meant flipping a congressional seat. They were hoping that Ashford’s name recognition and bipartisan cred would give him an edge against Bacon in a district that went for Trump by 2 points in 2016 after going for Mitt Romney by 7 points four years before that. Democratic primary voters, however, appear to have other plans.