Democrats pin hopes of beating Bacon on Vargas, a newly drawn district and abortion

Republicans see more of the same as Rep. Bacon seeks fourth term

By: - September 9, 2022 5:45 am
Bacon-Vargas photo

2nd Congressional District

OMAHA — Democrats see three differences in this year’s race to represent the Omaha area in Congress: a new candidate with more political experience, a freshly redrawn 2nd Congressional District and the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Republicans said they see more of the same, another Democratic candidate who is too progressive to represent the state’s most competitive congressional district.

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon campaigns in Saunders County. (Courtesy of Bacon for Congress)

Pundits expect another close race as State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, a Democrat, takes on U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. 

Bacon beat then-Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., by 1 percentage point in 2016. Bacon defeated Kara Eastman by 2 points in 2018 and by 4 points in 2020. 

National attention

The race once again is drawing national attention, although political observers said it remains just outside the nation’s closest contests. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., visited Vargas and raised funds in Omaha on Aug. 27. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., visited Aug. 18 to do the same for Bacon.

Hoyer said Americans need another Ashford, an experienced doer. He said Vargas would keep “destructive leadership” from taking over the House and freezing America “and its ability to act.”

Scalise said Republicans need “to fire Nancy Pelosi, lower gas prices, get inflation under control and secure the southern U.S. border, “but we won’t do that without Don Bacon.”

State Sen. Tony Vargas campaigns in Saunders County in July. (Courtesy of Vargas for Congress)

‘Too extreme’

Both candidates are trying to paint each other as too extreme to represent the Omaha area. Vargas calls Bacon a conservative in moderate’s clothing. Bacon describes Vargas as another Eastman-style progressive.

Vargas could outperform Eastman in South Omaha, where Bacon had made inroads. Vargas has represented South Omaha in the Legislature and on the Omaha Public Schools board. And Democratic candidates have improved their performances recently in northwest Omaha.

Bacon points to his years of work in both parts of town and notes that a Republican National Committee recently opened an organizing office in South Omaha.

His team stressed Bacon’s military service — he retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general — and his endorsements from unions, including the Omaha Police Officers Association. Bacon has said that backing matters to voters who care about public safety.

Bacon also has highlighted rankings that show him as one of the GOP’s most bipartisan members, although Democrats have said such ratings over-value “no-brainer” votes on infrastructure and other issues.

Vargas touts union endorsements of his own, including the AFL-CIO and Nebraska State Education Association. Vargas taught middle school in New York before working for an Omaha nonprofit.

He stresses his bipartisan credentials in the Nebraska Legislature, including voting to pass tax relief packages, although Republicans have said he helped block tax cuts early in the session before voting for the final tax relief package.

“The Republicans should take Vargas seriously, because he is a credible candidate,” said Randall Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

What experts see

Most major political firms that rate House races expect Bacon to win a fourth term, including FiveThirtyEight.com, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Fox News and Decision Desk HQ.

But some have shifted the 2nd District House race in recent weeks to a toss-up, including the Cook Political Report, Insider Elections and Roll Call.

The fall political season traditionally begins after Labor Day. On Wednesday, local airwaves were filled with attack ads both from national Republicans and national Democrats. 

A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad criticized Bacon for voting for tax breaks for drug companies and voting against allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

An ad from a Republican political action committee, the Congressional Leadership Fund, criticized Vargas for voting to place a $421 million OPS bond issue on the ballot while on the school board and for supporting a ballot measure that would have doubled state senators’ pay from $12,000 to $24,000 a year.

Over the past two weeks, there’s already been a fight over accuracy in ads. Vargas and the DCCC say a Bacon ad misled voters by saying he “capped insulin prices.”

Bacon did vote for a standalone bill, H.R. 6833, that would have included caps on insulin prices. But that bill did not become law because Republicans killed it in the Senate.

Democrats folded much of the language in H.R. 6833 aimed at capping insulin prices for people on Medicare into the broader Inflation Reduction Act. That bill passed in August, but Bacon voted against it.

Bacon said he couldn’t vote for the broader bill, which included tax increases on top earners and new spending. Vargas has said he would have supported the bill.

Redesigned district

Headed into this year, state senators shifted the ground beneath Bacon and Vargas. The Republican-led, officially nonpartisan Legislature adopted a new map for the 2nd District.

It’s not immediately clear which side will benefit during this first election cycle after the changes, until voters figure out which district they’re in.

The changes made the district about a half-percentage point more Republican. Democrats also lost some voters who registered as Republicans to vote in the May GOP primary for governor. Voter registrations show the district now is slightly redder: 38% GOP, 36% Democrat and 25% nonpartisan. 

The district’s geography also changed. Bacon, who lives in Sarpy County, has knocked on a lot of Papillion and La Vista doors and had significant support there. But the bulk of both communities are now in the 1st District.

The 2nd District now contains Saunders County, and both Bacon and Vargas have spent much of the spring and summer there, introducing themselves.

Saunders County voters tend to back Republicans, and they vote at similarly high rates, like those in Sarpy County, Adkins said. So Bacon is likely to make up what he lost.

But local political observers said Nebraska’s special election in June showed that many voters who switched districts do not yet know they’ve been moved into the 2nd District.

“Will they show up?” Adkins said. “That could be a factor.”

Impact of Roe v. Wade

Abortion is another wild card in this year’s race, as are inflation and gas prices, Adkins said. The high court’s decision to send the abortion debate back to the states could affect both candidates.

Adkins said 2022 feels a little like the 1980s, when the GOP successfully embraced anti-abortion rhetoric to motivate its voters. Democrats have the energy now, he said.

Some Republicans elsewhere, especially those in competitive districts like the 2nd, are pulling away from previous comments on abortion. Bacon has not. He is “proudly pro-life.”

He told the Nebraska Examiner this spring that he would support a federal ban on abortion, with exceptions for the life of the mother. He said this has long been his position.

Nebraska Right to Life shared Bacon’s candidate survey from 2016 that showed him expressing that position then. 

In 2021, Bacon co-sponsored H.R. 1011, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have considered a fetus a person under the law, outlawing abortion in all 50 states, with no specific exceptions. 

Bacon, asked about that resolution, said he thinks the personhood amendment would have left room for protecting the life of the mother.

Vargas has said he supports abortion rights. He said he’s hearing a difference on the campaign trail from women energized to vote to protect their reproductive health.

He voted against Legislative Bill 933 this spring. The so-called “trigger” bill would have banned abortion in Nebraska after the Supreme Court struck down Roe. He said women and their doctors “should be able to make their own health decisions.”  

Vargas rejected Republican-led pushes this summer to call a special legislative session to further restrict abortions in Nebraska. Today, abortions are legal in the state until 20 weeks into a pregnancy.

Vargas’ campaign on Thursday confirmed that he supports no further restrictions on abortion.

Bacon said that while he would prefer to see Nebraska ban abortion, he would accept anything that makes progress toward that goal, including making abortion illegal after 12 or 16 weeks.

“I’m interested in the art of the possible,” he 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 spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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