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In the 2nd District: It's Ann Ashford vs. Kara Eastman for Democratic nomination this time
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In the 2nd District: It's Ann Ashford vs. Kara Eastman for Democratic nomination this time

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This looks virtually certain to be the feature race that will dominate Nebraska's 2020 primary election nine months from now.

Kara Eastman v. Ann Ashford for the Democratic congressional nomination in the 2nd District.

To the winner goes the opportunity to challenge two-term Republican Rep. Don Bacon in the competitive metropolitan Omaha district.

There may be other candidates in the Democratic field, but this is likely to be the showdown match-up, a struggle loosely defined as a contest between traditional Democrats and those who want to move the party to the left.

And this is the newest chapter in a saga of recent twists and turns. 

Eastman upset Ashford's husband, former Rep. Brad Ashford, in the 2018 Democratic primary election by a slender 1,359 votes as he sought an opportunity for a rematch with Bacon and a return to the House.

Bacon had ousted Ashford from his single House term in 2016 by 3,464 votes.

But this is not about Brad Ashford.

"It's something I've always been interested in," Ann Ashford says during an interview over coffee on the deck outside The Mill in Lincoln's Haymarket.

"Brad is not the reason I'm running; but he is an inspiration. He's an example of what a good legislator can achieve."

Ann Ashford's assessment of Bacon: "He's a nice man, but I don't think he truly understands the district. He basically follows the party line."

Ashford describes herself as "a pragmatic problem-solver (who) grew up in the district, understands the district, worked my entire career here.

"I would take all sorts of views into account," she said, "not just those of a particular party."

Ashford points to John McCollister, her own state senator and a Republican, as a model.

"He's exactly what I would strive to be. He's an extraordinary, high-principled person who represents his district extraordinarily well."

McCollister recently stirred a firestorm that attracted national attention when he called out his party for "enabling white supremacy in our country" along with "a Republican president who continually stokes racist fears in his base."

Ashford is focused on issues such as health care, education, the environment, gun safety.

"But I hope gun control is not an issue, because I hope Congress acts before I would get there," she said.  

With the death toll rising from random mass shootings by lone gunmen using semi-automatic weapons to mow down people at public gatherings, Ashford said Congress needs to enact legislation that would address that issue immediately.

As an attorney who worked at Clarkson Regional Health Services, Ashford has a background in the health care field. She believes Congress should address the issue of student debt. And she says climate change is a critical challenge that needs urgent attention. 

The upcoming Democratic primary battle will center on how to best address issues like those.

Her primary opponent is "a person who may be tied too far to the left for our district," Ashford suggested.

"I applaud (Eastman) for being strong," she said, "but it would make sense for someone to run against her if we want the opportunity for different representation.

"I represent the district," Ashford said. "I can win."

Instead of a universal health care plan such as Medicare for All, Ashford said, she would consider a public option tied to the Affordable Care Act.

While supporting climate change action, she would not vote for the Green New Deal legislative package. 

And instead of free college for all, she'd consider a free community college education for those who may need that level of assistance, Ashford said. 

Eastman, who counts more than 20 years of experience leading nonprofit organizations, started Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance and is a former member of the board of governors of Metropolitan Community College.

Promising to be an independent voice, she has argued for policies that give all Nebraskans "a living wage, health care and affordable, healthy housing."

During her 2018 campaign, Eastman supported Medicare for All, tuition-free college proposals, a $15 minimum wage and increased gun control.

Eastman has pushed back on critics who say she's swimming too far out of the mainstream. 

A self-identified progressive, Eastman says she's "a social worker, not a socialist."

Her campaign two years ago attracted national attention, including an extensive article in Politico that suggested her bid for a House seat in Nebraska might be "the 2018 race that could settle the Democrats' civil war."

The 2nd District is a battleground: While the Democratic nominee may prevail in Omaha, a flood of Republican votes in Sarpy County often determines the winner.

That's a formula that was strengthened by legislative adoption of a congressional redistricting plan following the 2010 federal census that reshuffled Sarpy County precincts between the 1st and 2nd Districts in a manner designed to increase the Republican advantage in the 2nd District.

Not that Republicans have needed much help: They've won 12 of the last 13 House races in the district.

With incumbency and a congressional district marginally shaped to his advantage, Bacon, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general with a conservative record and an engaging personality, will be difficult to dislodge in his bid for a third term. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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