Nebraska High School Republicans handed out swag at their Omaha event in September 2022. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — Cole Lumsden had classes Wednesday at Elkhorn South High School, but that didn’t keep him from staying at U.S. Rep. Don Bacon’s Election Night party until 11:15 p.m. Tuesday.
Lumsden is president of the Nebraska High School Republicans, a group of 125 students in 33 schools across the state. Bacon credits the high schoolers, along with support from labor unions, as pivotal foot soldiers in his winning campaign.
Bacon outpolled his challenger, Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, 52%-48% in preliminary results. (That gap is likely to narrow Friday, when nearly 10,000 Douglas County early voting ballots returned late Monday and on Election Day are added.)
The high school group includes 75 teens in the 2nd Congressional District, helping Bacon’s campaign knock on 30,000 voters’ doors in the final 10 days leading up to the election, Bacon said Wednesday.
“It is the most uplifting experience because you’re making an impact in your community, a lot of us before you can even vote,” Lumsden said. “We’re honored to have a seat at the table.”
Since the 2020 election, high school Republicans have given Bacon’s team free help, Bacon campaign manager Derek Oden said.
They have knocked on voters’ doors, talked to them and handed out contact cards. They have made phone calls and sent text messages. They have assembled yard signs and delivered them. And they have taken part in campaign events.
“They’re the core,” Bacon said. “They go to all of our parades. I love having those high school and college kids with us. They add enthusiasm, and they have a lot of heart.”
Local Democrats acknowledged the value of Bacon’s ground game in a purple district and said the teenagers have helped Bacon.
Political consultants say that one of the most effective ways to reach voters is going door-to-door, said Randall Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“Our ground game is the difference maker here,” Oden said. “(On Tuesday), the work horses won and the show horses lost.”
The other part of Bacon’s strategy that made a difference this cycle was outreach to organized labor, including from local steamfitters, firefighters and police officers. Bacon enjoys broader union support than many of his GOP peers in Congress.
“When unions are solidified behind a candidate, that’s when a Democrat wins,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “Bacon got like 30% of the unions, and that matters.”
Democrats traditionally receive more union support. Vargas, for example, had the backing of the state AFL-CIO.
One place where the youth movement helped Bacon was in Saunders County, a new part of the 2nd District this year after the Nebraska Legislature redrew the district boundaries that leans heavily Republican.
Bacon said he made more than 80 trips to Saunders County during the campaign. Having local kids volunteering for his campaign was important, he said.
If young people are working for a candidate, their parents also tend to support the candidate, Kleeb said, adding that former President Barack Obama used a similar strategy to win Iowa in 2008 and 2012.
A new map
Bacon knew he needed to make inroads in Saunders County after he lost his base of support in Papillion and La Vista because of redistricting. Bacon lives in Papillion.
Redistricting, while it made the 2nd District about a half percentage point more Republican based on voter registrations, did not appear to help Bacon in his first race after the change.
A Nebraska Examiner analysis of voting data from 2020 and 2018, under the former district boundaries, found that Bacon garnered more votes from outside of Douglas County in those earlier races than he did after the district was redrawn for 2022, even with the new addition of red-leaning rural Saunders County.
In 2022, Bacon won 19,202 votes in that portion of the district. In the presidential election year, compared with 38,841 in 2020, a presidential election year. In the 2018 midterm election, he got 27,793 votes from outside of Douglas.
Because central Sarpy County was moved into the less competitive 1st District, it received less attention from national outside groups paying to knock on doors. Turnout in Sarpy was down this year compared to recent years.
Kleeb said Bacon benefited from the new district even if the numbers don’t show it, because Republicans fare better in rural areas of the state. Vargas has more experience campaigning in an urban area than in a more rural area like Saunders County.
“Bacon campaigned in rural Sarpy before,” she said. “Tony never campaigned in rural Nebraska. It’s a learned skill. It took me five years to figure out how to organize in rural communities.”
Another factor that hurt Vargas was lower-than-expected turnout in Douglas County, where Democrats typically do well, Kleeb said. Omaha-area Democrats sometimes assume their votes aren’t needed, she said.
She also credited Bacon and Republicans for engaging a steady stream of high school volunteers.
“What that gave them was a built-in canvas team,” she said of the Bacon campaign. “I’m not sure the conversations at the door were very deep, but I’d be appreciative that a young person came to my door.”
Bacon, Gov. Pete Ricketts, Gov.-elect Jim Pillen and U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., have described the high schoolers’ energy as infectious.
Ricketts told the students in September that their efforts help Nebraska Republicans offer young people a competing political vision to what they hear from many of their peers. Fischer said they make her proud.
Nebraska has the largest chapter of their umbrella high school GOP organization in the country, Lumsden said, ahead of growing chapters in New Jersey and North Carolina.
Their purpose, he said, is to encourage all young people to vote, whether they lean Democratic or Republican. The high school group also wants to make sure young conservatives don’t feel isolated.
Political science research shows that younger voters tend to vote for Democrats. National pundits have credited higher-than-typical participation by young voters with helping Democrats blunt this year’s projected red wave election.
Lumsden said the high school Republicans can help grow a group of young people who participate in politics and take leadership roles in campaigns and their communities. Oden, Bacon’s campaign manager, started out as a campaign volunteer as a young person.
“It goes back to some of the most basic founding principles in this country,” Lumsden said. “You have an option. You have a choice in how you want to think and how you want to feel.”
Issues of the race
Issues highlighted during the campaign also favored Bacon during a midterm election in which the Republicans were out of power in Congress and the White House. Historically, the party out of power gains seats in midterm elections.
Vargas made abortion a campaign issue after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, but Bacon said he didn’t shy away from being anti-abortion, as many of his congressional GOP colleagues did.
Bacon did shift his position. In 2021, he co-sponsored a federal constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion, with no obvious exceptions This summer he said he would accept a 15-week ban.
But he clarified under questioning that he still supported a full ban. Acknowledging that Congress was unlikely to pass that, he said he would embrace banning abortions after 15 weeks as a step toward his original goal.
“I think they made a mistake,” Bacon said of Vargas’ campaign strategy on abortion. “Almost their whole messaging was on abortion. I had so many Catholics and others who were angry about it. They inspired our base.”
Democrats disagreed, saying the abortion issue motivated their voters, particularly women and registered nonpartisans.
Bacon made hay with four issues: inflation, energy, crime and illegal immigration. On inflation, he emphasized the role he said federal spending played in making inflation worse.
On energy, he criticized President Joe Biden for relying on foreign sources of oil, particularly from hostile nations. He said he’d rather see more domestic oil production.
On crime, he tried to paint Vargas as soft on crime for working on sentencing reform and for participating in racial justice protests after the death of George Floyd.
On immigration, he worked to tie Vargas to criticisms of the Biden administration for getting rid of Trump-era approaches to border enforcement that Bacon said better deterred migrants.
Vargas’ team pointed to an onslaught of negative TV ads and mailers run against him as key factors, much like what faced Eastman and Ashford.
Does Bacon plan to run again in two years? He said he would need time to think and “pray on it” and talk to his wife and kids.
He said he expects to earn a subcommittee chairmanship if Republicans retake the House, and if he’s having an impact in Congress, he might find it harder to leave.
“I hear Vargas might run again,” Bacon said. “I know some people are talking about primary-ing me. They want to scare me out. That’s not the way my brain rolls.”
Vargas, in his statement conceding the race early Wednesday, said he would refocus on his time in the Legislature.
“While this wasn’t the outcome we’d hoped for, our work is not going to stop tonight,” Vargas said. “I will continue to serve.”
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