Campaign update: Vargas giving Bacon a run for his fundraising money in 2nd District

Nebraska’s other four congressional incumbents show healthy war chests, while challengers just gearing up

By: - February 5, 2024 5:45 am

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — The 2nd District House race to represent the Omaha area remains Nebraska’s closest fundraising contest.

Repeat Democratic challenger State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha raised $556,000 in the fourth quarter of 2023, pushing his campaign’s cash on hand north of $1.1 million heading into 2024.

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)

Vargas and his campaign have said he is better positioned to win than he was in 2022, with presidential election voters in the mix and more people aware of Bacon’s record.

Four-term incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Don Bacon of Papillion raised $784,000 in the fourth quarter, pushing his cash-on-hand tally to $1.5 million.

He thanked his supporters for embracing “commonsense conservatism” and said his supporters would help him beat Vargas and “make sure Joe Biden is a one-term president.”

Both campaigns’ fundraising totals are higher than in 2022, when Bacon beat Vargas by less than 3 percentage points. Vargas’ cash on hand is more than double what he had by the end of 2021. 

Bacon’s campaign cash pile is up half a million from his 2021 year-end numbers. He also faces a GOP primary challenger, which could force him to spend money sooner.

Last month, Omaha businessman Dan Frei, a Republican, filed to run, and last weekend, he secured the endorsement of the Nebraska Republican Party’s State Central Committee.

The new, more populist state GOP endorsed no members of the all-GOP congressional delegation. None of the five incumbents sought the endorsement, which the party said its constitution requires.

Dan Frei, a Republican candidate for the 2nd District U.S. House seat (Courtesy of Frei for Congress)

This week, 26 of the 32 Republican state senators in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature signed a letter endorsing all five delegation members: Reps. Bacon, Mike Flood and Adrian Smith and Sens. Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts.

Frei’s campaign manager, Mary Jane Truemper, said his campaign didn’t start raising funds until recently.

Also running as a Republican in the 2nd District is Michael Connely, a former gubernatorial candidate who filed as a pauper.

DCCC interested in race

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee identified the 2nd District among the first wave of House seats held by Republicans that national Democrats think they can flip.

Vargas and Bacon raised most of their money from donors giving $2,000 or more. In the fourth quarter, Vargas raised more of his tally from Nebraskans and from smaller-dollar donors than Bacon did.

Like most incumbents, Bacon collected more donations from political action committees, including $169,000 from the No Labels Problem Solvers PAC and $72,000 from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The 2024 struggle for control of Congress is expected to be especially close, with the state and national parties spending millions of dollars. Candidates winning a seat in the House spent on average about $840,000 in 2000, but that price tag has steadily increased ever since, reaching $1.4 million in 2010 and $2.8 million in 2022. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

He also steered nearly $200,000 in donations to his campaign through the Bacon Victory Fund and Bold Active Conservatives of Nebraska PAC.

Vargas has not yet revived his joint fundraising committee. Such committees let big donors give larger single donations that can then be distributed to multiple races, parties and causes. This bulk giving lets the committee decide how to steer donor funds. U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., uses them more than any delegation member.

Vargas raised most of his money from individuals and some unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.

Bacon also had union support, including from the American Postal Workers Union and the United Mine Workers of America, representing coal miners.

Two Senate races

Ricketts, facing his first Senate race since being appointed in early 2023, raised $974,000 in the fourth quarter, bringing his campaign cash on hand to $1.8 million. He said his fundraising total shows his “strong team of conservative supporters.”

Nebraska’s congressional delegation, from left, U.S. Pete Ricketts, U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer and U.S. Rep. Mike Flood on June 19, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

His joint fundraising committee, Ricketts Victory Fund, raised another $700,000 in the fourth quarter and listed $650,000 in cash on hand. He uses it to help his bid and those of other Republicans. His American Excellence PAC, which he also uses to invest in other Senate campaigns, raised $121,000 in the second half of 2023. It listed $114,000 in cash on hand.

His largest donations came from fellow GOP senators and their PACs, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Ricketts, like Bacon, received nearly $78,000 from AIPAC.

Ricketts’ Republican primary opponent, former Air Force Lt. Col. John Glen Weaver, reported raising $10,000. His campaign listed having $6,000 in cash on hand. Weaver received the state GOP’s endorsement in the race.

The primary winner is likely to face Preston Love Jr. of Omaha, a longtime Democrat and civil rights activist. Love filed to run last month so he hadn’t yet raised funds by the end of the reporting period.

Fischer, who is seeking a third term, raised $881,000. She listed a delegation-leading $3.27 million in campaign cash on hand. She said her campaign has “energy, excitement and momentum.”

Dan Osborn, an Omaha industrial mechanic, announces his nonpartisan bid for U.S. Senate in Nebraska on Thursday. He is challenging U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

She raised another $19,600 using her Fischer Victory Fund, which mainly sent money last year to her campaign and her Sandhills PAC. By year’s end, her victory fund listed $2,300 in cash on hand. Sandhills raised $81,000 and had $129,000 in cash on hand.

Like Ricketts, Fischer received some of her largest donations from other Republican senators. Both also received the support of agricultural companies, railroads and manufacturers.

She drew a little-known Republican challenger last week when Arron Kowalski, who lives near Grand Island, filed to run. 

Registered nonpartisan Dan Osborn, an Omaha union leader who has announced a bid for Fischer’s seat, is working to petition his way onto the ballot. He reported raising $98,000. His campaign listed having $75,000 in cash on hand.

Other House races

In Nebraska’s 1st District, Flood raised $306,000 in the fourth quarter. That brought his cash on hand at year’s end to $457,000.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue kicks off her campaign against U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb., at a rally in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

His separate Mike Flood Victory Fund reported raising $39,000 in the fourth quarter. It listed $6,400 in cash on hand.

One of Flood’s donors was Tom Peed, a top GOP donor in the state, who gave him $6,600. Peed was a longtime donor to former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Fortenberry resigned after being convicted of federal fundraising-related felonies, although the convictions were recently reversed because of the trial venue. 

To date, no Republican has filed to run against Flood. 

Democratic State Sen. Carol Blood is his most likely general election opponent. She filed to run last week, so she had no federal fundraising from 2023 to report.

In the 3rd District, Nebraska’s largest and most rural, Smith raised $227,000. His campaign listed $1.18 million in cash on hand.

Nebraska 3rd District GOP congressional candidate John Walz files to run for office. (Courtesy of Walz campaign)

His separate Adrian Smith Victory Fund raised $46,000 in the fourth quarter and listed $50,000 in cash on hand. His Concerned Americans for Freedom & Opportunity PAC or CAFO PAC, raised $59,000 in the fourth quarter and listed $217,000 in cash on hand at the year’s end.

Smith faces a pair of GOP primary challengers. Hastings engineer John Walz, who was endorsed by the state GOP, has said he is running as the “MAGA candidate.” Holdrege resident Robert McCuiston says on his campaign website he is a veteran who “believes in the power of bipartisanship and collaboration.”

Democrat Daniel Ebers filed late last week to run, as well. He is registered to vote in Lincoln, which is in the 1st District. 

None of Smith’s challengers reported raising any campaign money in 2023.

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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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