State Sen. Tony Vargas announces 2024 run at Rep. Don Bacon in Nebraska’s 2nd District

Abortion rights, economy could be key issues in race

By: - July 5, 2023 7:08 am
Bacon-Vargas photo

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., at left, and State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha are running for the 2nd District seat in the Omaha-area. (Courtesy of Photos/House of Representatives and Unicameral Information Office)

OMAHA — Voters in Nebraska’s most competitive congressional district could get another rematch in 2024.

State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha speaks on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature on Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha announced a repeat bid Wednesday for the Democratic nomination to represent the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District.

His early entry makes him a favorite to challenge four-term U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. Nebraska Democrats have said privately in recent weeks that they do not expect another high-profile Democrat to run.

“While we came up just short last November, I was so encouraged by the enormous response we got from voters across the district,” Vargas said in a statement from his campaign.

He said voters were “excited” by his message of “cutting middle-class taxes, growing the economy, protecting women’s health care, and keeping our communities safe from gun violence.”

Bacon welcomes challenge

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon speaks during a news conference on agricultural research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Monday, June 19, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

In recent weeks, Bacon has said he would welcome another challenge from Vargas, whom he described as out of step with a district leaning slightly right. He has criticized Vargas’ record.

Vargas in 2022 similarly described Bacon, saying that the congressman votes more conservatively than he talks and that a number of groups that rate Bacon as bipartisan are misleading voters. (In recent years, groups, including Common Ground Committee and Georgetown University, have listed Bacon as a top House Republican for reaching across the aisle.)

Record and rematch

Vargas, a two-term state lawmaker, backed legislation that raised awareness during the COVID-19 pandemic of conditions affecting “essential workers.”

He also worked to help steer federal coronavirus recovery funds to east Omaha, where he and others argue that people of color and people in poverty suffered disproportionately.

Former President Donald Trump arrives for an event at the Adler Theatre on March 13, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. Trump’s visit follows those by potential challengers for the GOP presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who hosted events in the state last week. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Vargas is a former member of the Omaha Public Schools board.

Like Kara Eastman, the last Democrat to run twice against Bacon, Vargas could be running in a presidential election year with Donald Trump on the ballot. Local political observers have said this might motivate more Democrats to vote.

Abortion factor

Another factor that could help Vargas this time is that he will have volunteers and help from abortion-rights advocates angered by the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.

The 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health sent abortion decisions back to the states. This year, Nebraska secured enough votes to shorten the abortion ban to 12 weeks gestational age, down from 22 weeks.

State lawmakers had tried passing a stricter abortion ban tied to when an ultrasound can detect fetal cardiac activity, often at about six weeks gestational age.

State Sens. Joni Albrecht, at left, Kathleen Kauth, at center, and Ben Hansen, at right, were among the leading voices to restrict abortion and gender-affirming care this session. They joined Gov. Jim Pillen for the signing of LB 574 on Monday, May 22, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Unlike many of his GOP peers in purple districts, Bacon is unapologetic in his support for additional restrictions on abortion. He has co-sponsored a proposed federal ban.

Bacon has said he knows a federal abortion ban cannot become law with President Joe Biden in office or Democrats in control of the Senate. So he, like many Republicans facing re-election fights, has said he would accept a 15-week federal ban.

Vargas highlighted this difference with Bacon in announcing his second House bid, saying he would stand up for “women’s health care” and not “double down” on “broken policies.”

Democrats have said they plan to make abortion a key issue in the 2024 race. Bacon is one of a few Republicans supporting a federal ban in a district where Biden beat Trump in 2020.

Bacon, reached Wednesday, said Vargas is the one who is “out of touch” on abortion. He repeated his criticism from 2022, that Vargas has never articulated what restrictions, if any, he could accept on abortion.

District went to Biden in 2020

Bacon beat Vargas by less than 3 percentage points in 2022. Biden beat Trump in the 2nd District in 2020 by more than 6 percentage points.

The 2nd District presidential vote matters because Nebraska awards a Electoral College vote to the winner in each of its three congressional districts, as well as two electoral votes to the winner statewide. In 2020, Trump won statewide.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy listen on Feb. 7, 2023, in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)

Bacon has said he plans to make the economy a centerpiece of his campaign, including the need to get the economy moving again after four years with Biden in charge.

Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Republican National Congressional Committee have identified the race as one they will spend on in 2024.

Bacon said recently that his fundraising is ahead of schedule. His campaign expects to report having about $1 million in cash on hand 16 months from the 2024 election.

Vargas raised $3.4 million to Bacon’s $3.8 million in 2022, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks campaign fundraising. Bacon enjoyed a $3.6 million edge in outside spending.

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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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