Nebraska is a state with Democratic roots, but it has been dominated mostly by Republicans over the course of the last two decades. A Democrat hasn’t sat in the Nebraska Governor’s mansion since 1999, when Ben Nelson left office. Nelson won a famously contentious election to the Governorship in 1990, defeating Republican Governor Kay Orr by a 49.9-49.2% margin. In 1994 Nelson expanded his 0.7% victory margin to a 47% victory margin where he won all but two counties in the state.
Nelson was popular during his tenure as Governor, and lost the 1996 Senate race for Senator Jim Exon’s seat to Chuck Hagel in an upset. Hagel’s 56-42% margin of victory was surprising, especially in a race against a popular Governor who had won over 70% of the vote in his re-election four years earlier. Nonetheless, Nelson remained determined to win a Senate seat and tried again in the 2000 cycle.
By 2000, Governor Nelson was no longer in office, but he still retained the name recognition he needed to wage a successful Senate bid. He successfully defeated Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg to win the seat by a 51-49% margin. Nelson had won the Senate race by a similar margin to his 1990 Gubernatorial race, but his coalition had shifted slightly. The biggest change on the map was in Douglas County, the location of Nelson’s home base. In the 1990 Gubernatorial Race he lost Douglas by a narrow 50.1-49.7% margin, but by the 2000 Senate Race he won the county by a 55-45% margin.
Nelson was a conservative Democrat and he won re-election in a landslide in 2006 over Republican Pete Ricketts, who would later go on to be Governor of the state. After his vote against Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court appointment in 2010, Republicans tried to persuade Nelson to switch parties, but her refused to do so. Senator Nelson retired in 2012, finding his positions increasingly hard to hold as a Democrat in Obama-era Nebraska.
In a surprising turn of events, Former Senator Bob Kerrey, a fellow Democrat, announced a bid for the seat that he had held from 1989-2001. Like Nelson, Kerrey had served as Governor of the state. Kerrey was also a decorated Vietnam Veteran and had run a Democratic campaign for President in 1992. Fischer held stable leads in the polls throughout the 2012 campaign, largely because of Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romeny’s performance in the state. Despite this, the seat was still rated as only Lean Republican, and a late Omaha World Herald poll showed a tight 49-46% race. On election day, though, Fischer won easily, becoming one of the few State Legislators to ascend to the US Senate.
History of Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District
Though Democrats might be out of luck statewide in Nebraska, they can compete in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. The boundaries of NE-02 have remained roughly the same 1992, when the seat was redrawn to include all of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, as well as a piece of Cass County to the south.
From 1989 to 1995, the seat was held by Democrat Pete Hoagland. Hoagland won the old iteration of the seat in 1988, when Congressman Hal Daub made a losing bid for the US Senate. Hoagland was a moderate Democrat, which helped him hold Nebraska-2 in many close elections during his career. Back then, the territory within Nebraska-2 was very Republican, which is why it’s surprising that Congressman Hoagland managed to win the seat at all. Pendulum Swing, Larry Sabato’s book about the 2010 Midterm Cycle, contains PVI information for districts flipped from Democrats in 1994. Isaac Wood notes, in his chapter “Brining Down the House”, that Nebraska-2 had a PVI of R+21 in 1994, making it one of the most Republican seats to be held by a Democrat in that cycle. The 1994 Almanac of American Politics also notes that George H.W. Bush carried the seat by a 58-42% margin in 1988.
So how exactly did Congressman Hoagland hold the newly drawn seat in 1992, even as Bush carried it by 15% nationally? He got lucky. Hoagland was challenged by Republican Ron L. Staskiewicz, a former Attorney and bar owner, who, according to the 1994 Almanac of American Politics, “charged his campaign $21,000 in rent to open its headquarters above his bar.” Hoagland had the added benefit of not being involved in the House Banking Scandal that had engulfed Congress at the time, and was able to portray Staskiewicz as a “mess” at the debate. Hoagland also outspent his opponent by $321,000, which gave him a significant advantage in the Omaha media markets. In the end, Hoagland survived by a narrow 51-49% margin in the redrawn district, defeating the Staskiewicz, who had run a dumpster fire campaign and almost won.
The fact that Hoagland only narrowly survived a challenge by a mediocre opponent in 1992 set off the warning sirens for 1994. Going into the next cycle, President Clinton’s unpopular Healthcare plan had led to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, and the ensuing Republican wave that would sweep Republicans into control of the House for the first time in decades. Hoagland, like many House Democrats that year, was a victim. He lost a narrow 49.9-48.9% race for re-election. He won Douglas County once again, but his margins in Sarpy County decreased just enough to allow a Republican victory. The victor was Jon Christensen, a businessman who would serve in Congress until 1998, when he ran in the Republican Primary for Governor and lost. After Christensen, Republican Lee Terry won the seat, and he held it until his surprising loss in 2014 to Brad Ashford.
The Importance of NE-02 in Presidential Elections
In 1996, Nebraska joined Maine to become the second US State to allocate Electoral Votes in Presidential Election by Congressional Districts. This was designed to make the “winner take all” system more proportional. Nebraska-2 remained the only moderately competitive seat in the state, but during the first decade of the 21st-century, it was solidly Republican on the Presidential and Congressional level. Bush won it by a 57-39% margin in 2000 and a 60-38% margin in 2004. Just when all hope appeared to be lost in Nebraska-2 for Democrats, Barack Obama won it 49.9-48.7% in his 2008 landslide. This was largely because of the growth of Democratic support in Douglas County.
Obama’s 2008 win in Nebraska-2 gave Democrats hope that they could eventually win the seat on the Congressional level. They had come to the realization that it was truly the last part of Nebraska where they could be moderately competitive.
In 2012, Romney beat Obama 53-46% in Nebraska-2, leaving Democrats disappointed at their failure to win the seat again on the Presidential level. The Democrats were more interested in the state’s surprisingly competitive 2012 Congressional Race in the district, as it gave them hope that the seat was within their grasp in the future.
The Republican Congressman who had held the seat since his election in 1998 was Lee Terry, a former Omaha Attorney who had served on the city’s City Council for nearly a decade. Terry had never really had a close race during his career, with his narrowest victory margin being roughly 3.5% over Democrat Jim Esch in 2008. At the beginning of the 2012 cycle, he appeared on track for another easy re-election against Democrat John Ewing, the Treasurer of Douglas County and one of the few African American politicians in Nebraska.
During the campaign, Terry, who was usually regarded as a “consensus seeker” who “liked to work with Democrats” (Almanac of American Politics 2014), failed to receive the endorsement of the Omaha World-Herald, a coveted endorsement that he had received many times previously. Though he maintained a strong fundraising advantage over Ewing, he was still vulnerable because he was perceived to be someone with few legislative accomplishments for his district. Terry’s fears were confirmed in October, when an Omaha World Herald Poll showed him only 4 points ahead of Ewing; he had previously led Ewing by 13 points in September.
The final week of the campaign saw intensive spending by the NRCC and other outside groups that tried to associate Ewing with fiscal liberalism and the expanding national debt. In the closest race of his career, Terry won re-election by a slim 51-49% margin over Ewing. Terry also lost Douglas County by a 51.3-48.7% margin to Ewing; Terry had never lost Douglas County before, and had often won it handily. The long-term trends in Douglas County on the Congressional level looked bad for Republicans and put them on high alert over fears that they could potentially lose the seat in a blue wave election.
Ironically, the Democrats managed to flip Nebraska-2 in a red wave year, making it one of the few bright spots for Democrats in an otherwise abysmal midterm performance during Obama’s six-year-itch in 2014. That year, Congressman Terry was challenged by State Senator Brad Ashford, a Democrat. Going into the cycle, Terry was relatively unpopular, and polls showed a close race between Terry and Ashford. Terry had been criticized for refusing to give up his salary during the 2013 government shutdown, and his base in Douglas County continued to crumble throughout the campaign.
On Election Night 2014, Ashford beat Terry by a 49-45.7% margin, becoming one of only two House Democratic candidates (the other being Gwen Graham in FL-2) to flip seats from Republican incumbents. Some Republicans blamed Terry’s loss on Libertarian candidate Steven Laird, who took 5.3% of the vote, but this claim is hard to support, as some Libertarian votes may have also gone to Ashford in a two-party race. Regardless, Ashford’s strong performance against Terry was facilitated by his 6% margin of victory in Douglas County, which had only narrowly voted for Ewing in 2012.
Democrats were elated that they finally had their Democratic Congressman from Nebraska. They had cracked NE-02 on the Congressional level, but their chances of holding the competitive seat were not assured in 2016. Ashford was challenged by Republican Don Bacon, who hoped for Trump to win the district so that he could ride his coattails to victory. Sure enough, Trump won the district by 2%, and Bacon unseated Ashford by a similar 49-47.8% margin. The freshman Democratic Congressman had tried to argue that he had helped local veterans by procuring funds for a new VA hospital, but the argument fell on deaf ears as political outsider Don Bacon campaigned on his record of military service as well as his private sector record.
In 2018, the environment looked favorable for Democrats, even in NE-03. Former Congressman Ashford quickly jumped into the race for a chance to win back his old seat in the blue wave year. Democrats were excited about Ashford’s candidacy, and the DCCC believed he was the most electable candidate against Bacon in November, but that’s where the floor fell out from underneath Ashford.
Non-profit executive Kara Eastman, who had been endorsed by the progressive organization Justice Democrats, won the primary over Ashford. After Ashford’s primary loss, the DCCC began to ignore the race and many Democrats lost confidence in their ability to unseat Bacon. Most polls showed Bacon ahead by a stable margin, but on election day he nearly lost, only winning by a 51-49% margin.
In 2020, Kara Eastman defeated Ann Ashford, the wife of the former Congressman, by a landslide margin in the Democratic primary. Some Democrats are upset with this result, but Eastman is a better candidate on paper for the 2020 cycle than she was in 2018, which leads some Democrats, particularly progressive ones, to label this as a sleeper House Race for 2020.
What do Democrats have in store in NE-2 going forward?
The Presidential Race – NE-02 has one electoral vote that can be swayed in the Presidential Election. While it hasn’t voted for a Democrat since 2008, it’s clear that the Democratic trends in Douglas County are helping to move the district to the left on both the Presidential and Congressional levels. Trump won the seat by only 2% in 2016, and it’s possible that Joe Biden could make a play here in 2020. Most pundits rate Nebraska-2 as a tossup on the Presidential level, and it should provide us with adequate data to observe how Biden improves his margins in small, but marginal, Midwestern regions like this.
The Congressional Race – 2018 surprised most pundits because Kara Eastman, who had previously been written off as a bad candidate, almost beat Don Bacon. Many people have hypothesized that Ashford, had he won the 2018 primary, would’ve unseated Bacon in 2018, and while that is likely true, there is no way to know for sure. As stated previously, Eastman is running a much stronger campaign now than she did in 2018. Eastman has been endorsed by Lisa Blunt Rochester, the Representative from Delaware’s At-Large Congressional District and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Eastman is also a moderately strong fundraiser, and brings much more fundraising capability to the race than Ann Ashford could’ve done. This race is Lean Republican, but don’t underestimate Eastman in 2020.
Redistricting 2022 – Many people have asked whether or not Nebraska Republicans will push to break up the 2nd District in a Gerrymander, which would ensure that it would remain a safe district for Republicans, but most analysts expect Nebraska to keep its competitive 2nd district, as it has for nearly two decades. Drew Savicki, who analyses elections at 270towin, has said repeatedly that a competitive NE-02 brings in money to the state every four years and that it gives a usually obscure state an unusual amount of attention during each Presidential cycle.
Regardless of how 2020 unfolds, Nebraska is certainly a more interesting state than one would think at first glance and it’s worth keeping an eye on it at both the Presidential and Congressional levels.