Rep. Don Bacon, at left, and State Sen. Tony Vargas participate in a debate on Thursday, Oct. 13, at the Omaha Press Club. Sponsors were the League of Women Voters of Nebraska and WOWT. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and his Democratic challenger, State Sen. Tony Vargas, spent much of their first debate Thursday describing themselves as more moderate than the record shows and painting their opponent as more extreme than he advertises.
Bacon and Vargas hit familiar themes from their race to represent the Omaha area in the state’s freshly redrawn 2nd Congressional District, which now includes Saunders County. About 200 people attended the League of Women Voters-WOWT noon debate at the Omaha Press Club.
Taxes and spending
Bacon, who is seeking a fourth term, criticized Vargas’ legislative proposal to raise income tax rates on Nebraska’s highest earners and a vote while serving on the Omaha Public Schools board to let voters decide a $421 million bond issue for new and renovated schools.
Bacon said Vargas describes himself as a property tax cutter but has blocked several legislative proposals to ease people’s tax burdens, including to offset property taxes and cut income taxes.
He said Vargas flipped to support this year’s $950 million annual tax relief package. Gov. Pete Ricketts called that tax relief package the largest in state history.
“He opposed the tax bill twice,” Bacon said of Vargas and the package the Legislature passed last session. “Then he tried to take credit in the end when he switched over. Our taxes are high today because of Tony Vargas.”
Vargas, a former teacher and nonprofit employee, defended his record on taxes, saying he has worked to control spending and balance the budget. He said Bacon is trying to miscast his record of helping the Legislature cut taxes on Social Security income, offset more than $1 billion in property taxes and reduce income taxes.
“I actually worked to make sure we can afford and do everything we can to control costs,” said Vargas, a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which sets spending. “I stepped up to buck the Democratic Party and voted for tax relief.”
Vargas, who supports abortion rights, said Bacon has muddied his position on abortion recently. Bacon has said that while he opposes abortion, he supports exceptions for the health and life of the mother.
Vargas noted that Bacon co-sponsored H.R. 1011 in 2021. The proposed constitutional amendment, which would ban abortion, contains no such exceptions, though Bacon said it would have allowed states to carve out exceptions.
Bacon said he hasn’t changed positions, pointing to the written version of his 2016 survey responses for Nebraska Right to Life, when he said he’d make exceptions for the health and life of the mother.
“Congressman Bacon, you are hiding your long-held position on this…,” Vargas said. “This is a defining decision and difference between us.”
Bacon reiterated his support for a national ban on abortion, one with exceptions, but he said he doesn’t think Congress would pass it. Because he wants to move in that direction, he said, he would support U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal banning abortion after 15 weeks.
Bacon argued that Vargas’ view on abortion is extreme because has said he would support abortion rights with no limits, what Bacon called “abortion until birth.”
Vargas said during the debate that he did not support “abortion until birth.” He said Bacon was misrepresenting his position but declined to say during or after the debate what restrictions, if any, he would support. He said he favored leaving the decision to women and their doctors.
“Look, I have a wife and I have a daughter,” Vargas said. “I want to make sure their rights are intact.”
Inflation and the economy
Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, focused much of his fire on Democrats’ handling of the economy. He said Vargas would continue the spending that fueled record inflation. A Thursday report showed the consumer price index has jumped 8.1% over September 2021.
Nebraskans, Bacon said, can’t afford higher prices for gas, groceries and heating. He said he and the GOP would fight new spending by the Biden administration, though he touted his work to help fund work at Offutt Air Force Base and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“When the average family has lost 5k in spending power, that is a problem,” Bacon said. “We’ve got to stop the reckless spending and increase domestic production.”
Vargas said Bacon could have done more to fight inflation by voting with Democrats to lower health costs, including on health insurance premiums and the cap on insulin prices for seniors on Medicare. Bacon supported an insulin price cap when it was a separate bill but voted nay when it passed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
“I want to make sure we’re reducing costs and getting our spending under control,” Vargas said.
Bacon said he would fight Democrats’ “feckless energy policies.” He backs an all-of-the-above approach on energy policy, including tax credits for wind and solar power and prioritizing domestic fossil fuels production, including more drilling for oil and natural gas.
Vargas said he, too, supports harnessing domestic energy supplies but said the country needs to more aggressively address a changing climate, investing more in cleaner energy sources and working faster to improve how Americans use traditional, non-renewable fuel sources.
Student debt relief
On student debt, Bacon said Nebraska was doing the right thing in leading a multi-state lawsuit to challenge a plan by President Joe Biden and the Education Department to forgive tens of thousands in student loans without congressional approval.
A better approach, Bacon said, would be for Congress to work together to figure out a way to encourage or allow the refinancing of student loans at lower interest rates. Biden’s plan, he said, undermines personal responsibility and accountability.
“This will be defeated in the courts, and I think the president knows that,” Bacon said. “It was done for political messaging.”
Vargas, who said he went to college using Pell Grants, disagreed with Biden’s program allowing such a wide swath of people to excuse $10,000 to $20,000 in student debt. He said he would have targeted the debt relief at those who need it the most.
The state senator, who represents South Omaha, said he would like to see Congress work to update the Pell Grant program to include more two-year colleges and training programs to enter skilled trades. Bacon agreed on the need to modernize education policy to embrace more than four-year schools.
“My parents were union workers,” Vargas said. “I was the first in my generation to go to college. … We need to make sure we’re making higher education more affordable.”
On immigration, Bacon emphasized the need to stem the flow of people and drugs across the nation’s southern border. He said the nation has to get serious about slowing down how many people try to cross the border illegally if it wants to deal with legal immigration.
Arrests of those trying to cross the border in 2022 eclipsed 2 million people in September, a record number, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Bacon said he disagreed with Republican governors on the border flying illegal immigrants to Democratic-led states.
But, he said, the Biden administration relocates people waiting on their court dates to other states without telling governors and mayors and local law enforcement, straining schools and institutions.
Vargas said public safety along the border has to be improved and said that means doing more than addressing just human trafficking and drugs. He said Americans need Congress to be more pragmatic. He said people who have lived in the U.S. for years need a pathway to citizenship.
“Send somebody to Congress who’s not going to point and blame a party or division in this country,” Vargas said. “Send somebody to solve it.”
Moderate or not?
Both candidates presented themselves as the better choice for moderate voters. Bacon touted his record in Congress, including passing 13 bills. He said he helped write the House version of the bipartisan infrastructure bill paying for roads and broadband.
He also worked with the Nebraska delegation to secure billions in flood recovery funds and a new runway for Offutt Air Force Base.
Vargas pointed to his work to help the Omaha area receive federal coronavirus relief funds. He has said he would make sure all of the district has a voice in Congress.
He said he will work with Republicans, Democrats and independents to make sure small businesses get what they need to grow.
Vargas criticized Bacon for opposing the House Select Committee on January 6, 2021. Bacon said he supported a 50-50 committee but called the select committee slanted. Bacon noted that he voted to certify the 2020 election results. Vargas said he would protect voting rights.
On voter ID, Bacon said he would vote to support it, while Vargas said he opposes it. Both candidates said they supported letting states legalize marijuana for medical purposes.
Their second and final debate is Sunday.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.