U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., addresses a crowd of about 300 supporters in Omaha on Nov. 8, 2022. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., won a fourth term in Congress Tuesday serving the Omaha area. As of early Wednesday, he led State Sen. Tony Vargas by 4 percentage points in Nebraska’s most competitive congressional district.
Bacon overcame voter anger over the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade by focusing on inflation and higher prices for everyday staples like food and gas. He told a crowd of 300 on Election Night that he would help House Republicans push President Joe Biden toward energy independence and a more secure border.
Bacon and conservative outside groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, pounded Vargas on the airwaves and in the mail for supporting stimulus spending under President Joe Biden, saying “runaway” Democratic spending had contributed to inflation.
Bacon and the GOP also reminded voters about Vargas’ unsuccessful legislative proposal that would have raised income taxes on Nebraska’s highest earners.
Vargas tried to counter that push by highlighting his vote for final passage of the largest tax relief package in state government history, with more than $1 billion in cuts and tax shifts.
But State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan cut an ad for Bacon criticizing Vargas’ effort to claim credit for the tax bill, saying that he had helped Democrats bottle up the bill for most of the session.
‘A lot of patience’
Vargas made an appearance Tuesday night for the first time about 11:30 p.m., speaking to a cheering, sign-waving crowd. He said he didn’t want to rush the results, especially in eastern Omaha.
His campaign manager, Meg Mandy, said he would wait to concede until at least Friday, when Douglas County plans to announce its count of the 9,500 or so early voting ballots that were returned late Monday and on Election Day. Those could cut into Bacon’s margin of victory.
Vargas and changed his mind about 1:30 a.m., after the Associated Press called the race for Bacon.
Vargas, in a statement, thanked his supporters and said his campaign was about working people and the issues they face. He said he would continue to advocate for them in the Legislature.
“My parents worked hard so my brothers and I could get an education and decide what we wanted for our lives,” Vargas said in the statement. “That’s why I work as hard as I possibly can, every day. … And while this wasn’t the outcome we’d hoped for, our work is not going to stop tonight.”
Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, may have benefited in a purple district from former President Donald Trump attacking Bacon during his GOP primary, political observers said. Trump was angry Bacon helped pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Bacon readily admits he’s more conservative than many people in his district, but he has spent much of his first three terms participating in working groups trying to find policy ways forward.
One area where Bacon had not compromised much until this election cycle was on abortion. Vargas’ team and outside groups including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee highlighted Bacon’s stance.
In 2021, the congressman co-sponsored H.R. 1011, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have considered a fetus a person under federal law, outlawing abortion in all 50 states, with no specific exemptions.
Bacon, running a play called by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for vulnerable House Republicans, pivoted this year to saying he would be willing to accept a federal ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
He faced some backlash from Omaha-area women and other abortion-rights advocates, but national midterm voting patterns against the party in power helped him survive.
Vargas sided with abortion-rights advocates. He said women and their doctors, not the government, should decide when and whether a woman gets an abortion.
He would not say what limits, if any, he would support on abortions. Bacon pounced, saying Vargas was for abortion until birth, which Vargas denied.
“When I look at what happened with our Speaker, our opponent, Joe Biden, they were worshiping at the altar of abortion,” Bacon said. “And that’s where … their campaign died.”
One of the biggest questions Bacon and Vargas faced was how many people would show up in the first election cycle for a redrawn 2nd District.
Both campaigns worked hard to introduce the two candidates, especially in new portions of the district. Bacon’s campaign and outside help knocked on more than 30,000 doors. Vargas’ campaign knocked on thousands of doors, too.
Bacon lost his home base of support in central Sarpy County to redistricting. Most of Papillion and La Vista were moved into the Lincoln-centric 1st District. In exchange, the 2nd District gained rural, GOP-leaning Saunders County.
The congressman fared well in Saunders, beating Vargas 72%-28%, and in the parts of Sarpy that stayed in the 2nd District, 65%-35%. He also held his own in blue-leaning Douglas County, where he trailed Vargas by less than a percentage point.
Vargas appeared to perform very similarly to nonprofit consultant Kara Eastman’s first and second races against Bacon. Bacon beat Eastman in 2020 by 4 percentage points, two years after defeating her by half as much.
Democrats hoped Vargas was a better fit for the district than Eastman. He has represented South Omaha in the Legislature and the Omaha Public Schools board.
The Republican National Committee spent money on an office in South Omaha to help blunt Vargas’ advantage there, trying to reach religious and socially conservative voters in his backyard.
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