Published in The Moderate Voice on July 3, 2016
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This cycle, opportunities for House Republicans to play offense for capturing seats are few and far between. Most of the districts held by Democrats are drawn so heavily in the party’s favor that they have no chance of losing. With Donald Trump topping the GOP ballot, virtually all of the Democratic marginal incumbents are safe as well. In a year like this, Republicans are more concerned about minimizing their own losses. But one seat that currently has a Democratic Representative that is truly up for grabs is Nebraska’s Second Congressional District. Freshman incumbent Brad Ashford hails from a Douglas County (Omaha) based district that Mitt Romney carried by seven points in 2012 but where Barack Obama eked out a 2,000 vote win four years earlier in a result that surprised a number of analysts. This year, he is in for a tough fight against Don Bacon, a retired Brig. General whose life experiences – Republicans hope, will put enough voters in his corner to tip the election.
Ashford, 66, has been on the Omaha political scene for decades so his 5,000 vote victory in 2014 over seven-term Republican Lee Terry wasn’t exactly a fluke. But even Democrats acknowledge that Terry would have been re-elected had he been a little less offensive both on the personality and judgement front. Terry often won re-election with ease but grew progressively weaker by demographic changes, strong challengers, and a series of self-inflicted wounds, the most serious being his response to a reporter’s question during the government shutdown as to whether he’d continue accepting his pay check. “Damn straight,” Terry replied. “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college.” In the final week of his campaign against Ashford, Terry was hurt by running an ad attacking Ashford for opposing a proposed tweaking of the state’s “Good Time” law, which made inmates eligible for reduced sentences for good conduct. Nikko Williams, an African-American prisoner, subsequently killed four people while it for “good time.” Ashford had chaired the legislature’s Judiciary Committee at the time so Republicans found it easy to lay the blame at his feet. Instead, they were jarred by comparisons to the famous 1988 Willie Horton ad and in turn, it was Terry who took the brunt of the backlash. Ashford for one claimed that not only did no amendments reach the Judiciary Committee, but that Republican Governor Dave Heineman had actually proposed increasing “good-time.”
Ashford meanwhile had a unique perspective of having appealed to voters of different parties throughout his career. How? By being a member of each of them at one time or another. He worked for GOP Senator Roman Hruska in the 1970s and GOP Omaha Mayor Hal Daub two decades later. He served in the Legislature as a Republican and even ran for Congress as one in 1994 (he lost the primary). Ashford became a Democrat in 2011, declaring that while he once “believed there was a future for centrist or moderate Republicans, but that’s not where the party is today.” A 2013 run for Mayor of Omaha, where Ashford took just 14%, was mounted as an Independent. Then he launched his successful run against Terry.
Initially, Ashford had proven himself impervious to the ways of Washington. He promised to reach across the aisle during his campaign, vowing to “make 25 new friends” (when Democrats lost seats following the election, he joked that he’d have to find 50). During the Congressional orientation following his first election, Ashford was bewildered by the fact that incoming members of both parties had separate dinner receptions and he has declared that he is personally fond of Utah’s very conservative Congresswoman, Mia Love. Ashford was also very slow to fundraise to the point that a few key aides resigned in frustration, but has since made up ground, hiring a former colleague from the Legislature, Jeremy Nordquist to take the reins as his chief of staff. Many say Nordquist has steered Ashford’s operation ship right.
Politically, Ashcroft has tried to forge relationships with the divergent interests of the district by charting a centrist course as well.
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Ashford has weaved a careful navigation that often found him voting against his party. He supported the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade Pact (TARP). Nebraska was deep into the fight of the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal. He opposed the Iranian Nuclear Arms deal. His careful navigation has garnered him the endorsement of the business friendly Chamber of Commerce. <em>The Omaha World Herald</em> reported in April that a number of farm groups who supported him in the past were upset at his opposition to Country of Orgin labeling. While he has sided with his party in resisting efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he has voted to roll back the employer mandates and new rules on increased regulations in the department of Labor, the latter a stance shared by only one other House democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota. Ashcroft has also opposed what some critics dub “Executive Amnesty.” while he backs Obama’s goal on the latter, it’s the “unilateral action taken by the President” that he doesn’t care for. The stances of the Democrats on other cultural issues have been more to his liking. But not all. Ashford recently declined to participate in the House Democrats gun control “sit-in.” His office told <em>Roll Call</em> that while he does back gun requirements, he “does not support shutting down Congress on any issue,” aide Joe Jordan said, “and he is concerned that this tactic will be used in the future by the far-right to advance issues he does not agree with.” He once said consider myself more like a John Kennedy Democrat, keeping taxes down and growing the economy.” Locally, Ashford has worked on bringing a veterans health clinic to Omaha and, with his seat on the Armed Services Committee, a new runway for Offut Air Force Base.
Democrats knew Ashford has a fight on his hands and tried to goad Republicans into nominating a very conservative State Senator, Chip Maxwell. He had held Terry to 53% in the 2014 primary and Democrats hoped he’d be unelectable. Republicans knew that as well and nominated Bacon. His campaign notes that during the course of his 30 year Air Force career, “he had 16 assignments all over the world. He commanded twice at the wing level, to include at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.” he commanded a squadron in Iraq. Bacon, 52, also worked for a neighboring Congressman, Republican Jeff Fortenberry as a military advisor. <em>The World Herald</em> writes that “after 15 assignments — seven states and three foreign countries — Bacon wanted to settle down” and Omaha was the place he and his family chose. Democrats, noting his recent Illinois residency, made the claim that Bacon is simply using Omaha as a launching pad for Congress, but he responds by calling himself “Nebraskans by choice,” and tells folk they “can look for us to spend the rest of our lives here.” He currently serves as a visiting professor at Bellevue University. Bacon speaks of the need for “outside experience” and that his service renders him better positioned address matters such as controlling ISIS. He calls himself an “outsider’” which Ashford rebuts by saying “This is not the military. This is a legislative body, and it doesn’t work the same way,” Ashford said. “It isn’t a command-and-control structure. It is a legislature, so you have to find common ground, work across the aisle.”
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Bacon’s camp argues that Ashford’s hedging is to the district’s detriment. They say he “usually tries to be on all sides of the issues. People want to know where their Representative stands on things,” adding, “he’s had a history of going back and forth on key issues.” Meanwhile, Bacon promises to be a staunch conservative, particularly on spending. Referring to now Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst’s famous ad castrating a pig, Bacon jokes he’s “one-upping” her by promising, “A vote for Bacon will always be a vote against pork.”
Team Bacon is not certain how the Presidential race might trickle down but are certain that “Secretary Clinton is not exactly popular here. People have serious concerns about her.” They believe “Nebraska voters are very interested in looking at the candidates.” That said, there will without question be a large amount of voters who show up for Presidential races only and that looks to benefit Ashford. Entering the cycle as the incumbent gives him a boost as well. Ashford and other Terry challengers have proven an ability to counter national winds before. On the other hand, in Bacon, he is facing a foe totally different in temperament and without gaffes than Terry. Democrats have represented the sixth for just twelve of the past 56 years – and prior to Ashford’s ’14 win, had a drought of 20.
With all of the data considered, I’d rate the incumbent a slight favorite. But his re-election is in no way guaranteed.
When Ashford announced the new runway for Offutt, he called it “a new dawn.” Republicans hope that’s the case as well. But Ashford is determined to let his own dawn last a while longer. Come November, we’ll find out who is right.