State Sen. Tony Vargas, Alisha Shelton square off in Omaha-area Democratic U.S. House primary

By: - May 6, 2022 3:29 pm

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

OMAHA — Tuesday’s Democratic primary to determine who will face 2nd District Rep. Don Bacon in November pits State Sen. Tony Vargas against mental health practitioner Alisha Shelton. 

Both are serious candidates, said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. But he said Vargas has an advantage because of his experience as an elected official, his connections and his fundraising edge.

State Sen. Tony Vargas (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

Vargas, in addition to being a state senator, is a former member of the Omaha Public Schools Board. 

Shelton has the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus and the experience of having run a statewide race in 2020. She lost in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate to Chris Janicek. Shelton says that campaign and her work in mental health make her a good listener.

The contested primary race is rare for Nebraska Democrats elsewhere, who tend to consolidate more quickly around single candidates running at or near the top of the ticket.

The 2nd District seat has seen a number of contested primaries in the recent past, including Kara Eastman vs. the late Rep. Brad Ashford in 2018 and Eastman vs. Ann Ashford and Gladys Harrison in 2020.

Alisha Shelton campaigns in downtown Omaha in 2020. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

This year, the National Republican Congressional Committee has taken shots at both Vargas and Shelton as too liberal for the “purple” district.  

Vargas leads the two in funding. He raised more than $1 million, according to federal campaign fundraising reports, and has spent more money on campaign ads. Shelton raised more than $300,000. 

Vargas said he decided to run because he got tired of watching Congress make Americans’ political divisions worse. He said he wants to unify people, not divide them.

His solution is to bring more of the approach he and others used in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, he said. He wants to find common ground and work on areas of agreement. 

“Congress is more divided than ever, but I realized that who we elect either makes it a more unified place on common shared things or less,” Vargas said. 

Shelton said she wants to ease people’s financial pain. Too many people ignore inflation, which is hurting families and people who are struggling, she said.

Among her ideas: making sure people have the education and training for better jobs, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and perhaps indexing the minimum wage to inflation.

“Anything that’s going to help American working families, I think that’s the way to go,” Shelton said. 

Vargas and Shelton say they’re hearing from Democrats and nonpartisans about lost wages and the cost of health care and child care.

Addressing those concerns, Shelton said, would get more people back into the workforce and fill open jobs. Vargas, who fought for workplace protections for meatpackers in the Legislature, said people should not have to worry financially about getting sick. 

“They have a lot less in their pockets,” Vargas said of his constituents. “People want somebody that’s not just going to talk nicely and actually is going to try to do something.” 

On education, Vargas backed charter schools early in his career. He has since backed away, saying he’s a “proud former public school teacher” who has worked for better pay for teachers. 

Shelton said she wants public dollars going to public schools. During a debate with Vargas, she said voters want someone they know will be consistent on issues that matter.

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Vargas and Shelton agreed on the need to help small businesses pay higher, more competitive wages with help from tax incentives and grants. 

Vargas pointed to his record in the Legislature, where he helped pass a package by State Sens. Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney allocating federal recovery funds for programs in  North and South Omaha. 

Shelton pointed to her work at the individual and neighborhood level to connect people with needed services, be they government, nonprofit or medical.

Vargas said he wants to help people focus on the 2nd District’s economic future, to think about what the region is good at, what it could be good at and what investments it needs to get there.

Shelton said she would like to see a greater focus on workers, who she said need more federal protections to join unions and more encouragement to study trades.

Nebraska Republican Steve Kuehl has filed to challenge U.S. Rep. Don Bacon in the 2nd Congressional District House race. Shown are his wife, Lori, and daughter, Jada.

Vargas and Shelton agreed on the need to boost voting rights. 

Both candidates have New York ties. Shelton’s family moved to Omaha when she was a child. Vargas grew up in New York after his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Peru. His wife, Lauren, had ties to Nebraska. They moved here in 2012.

The winner likely will face Bacon, who is running against a little known primary opponent, Steve Kuehl. Bacon is a retired Air Force brigadier general. Kuehl is a salesman for White Castle Roofing. Bacon has raised more than $2.3 million, compared with Kuehl’s $5,141.

When former President Donald Trump held a rally May 1 in Greenwood, Nebraska, he urged Republicans not to vote for Bacon (who won the 2nd District in 2020, when Trump lost it). 

Trump tried in the current election cycle to recruit a primary opponent for Bacon. But no well-known opponent surfaced. 

Trump, when criticizing Bacon from the stage, said, “Good luck, Steve, whoever the hell you are.”

Bacon, reached this week, said he is grateful to constituents for their faith and said he works for them, not Trump.  “We are focused on 2022 and not backwards,” Bacon said.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.

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