Rep. Don Bacon is cooking and serving up small “Biden burgers.”
State Sen. Tony Vargas is walking through a children’s dodgeball game and warning things “are about to get ugly.”
The candidates for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District have started airing their commercials on local TV stations. Labor Day traditionally marks the start of a political season where campaigns work to excite voters for Election Day and the 2nd District is no exception.
In recent days national Republican and Democratic groups have also started airing commercials taking shots at Vargas and Bacon.
Bacon, the Republican incumbent, is seeking his fourth term in Congress. Vargas, his Democratic opponent, has been elected to the Nebraska Legislature twice and served on the Omaha Public Schools board.
The two men are vying to represent the 2nd District, which after redistricting was done last year now includes Saunders County, western Sarpy County and all of Douglas County, including Omaha. It is the state’s most competitive congressional district, with the latest voter registration figures showing that Republicans outnumber Democrats by less than 9,000 voters. Registered voters who aren’t affiliated with a party total more than 99,000.
Earlier this year, political observers said Bacon had many factors working in his favor. In the modern era, the party that holds the White House has lost congressional seats in virtually every first-term president’s first midterm election.
As recently as a few months ago, Republicans appeared poised for a dominant performance come November. While still possible, local and national political observers said the landscape and momentum have shifted.
“Things have been changing,” said Richard Witmer, a Creighton University political science professor.
Gas prices have dropped, President Joe Biden had a string of legislative victories on climate, health care and gun violence and the Supreme Court decided in June to end abortion protections, which has energized and motivated some voters.
“Big picture, I don’t think there’s a red wave coming, but I still think it looks like Republicans could pick up some House seats,” said Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “And I’d say the Senate is 50/50.”
The shifting momentum also has some national observers changing their predictions about Nebraska’s 2nd District race, which has a long history of competitive contests.
Last month the Cook Political Report, which rates congressional races, moved its ranking of the 2nd District race from “likely Republican” to “toss up.” In explaining the change, Cook’s report cited Bacon’s close elections in 2018 and 2020 and that his opponent in those races, Kara Eastman, may have had “limited appeal” in the district compared to a more moderate Vargas.
Other outlets are still predicting a Bacon victory. Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which also handicaps congressional races, lists the race as “leans Republican.”
Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Democrats — some of whom believe they could have flipped the 2nd District in 2018 if they had a different nominee — are excited about Vargas.
Kondik said he thinks the 2nd District race is among a few dozen of the most competitive races for the House.
Adkins said he doesn’t think the 2nd District race is among the country’s 20 most competitive races but it could be just outside that. Adkins said Bacon and Vargas will have the resources, money and national level support to run effective campaigns.
Already national figures have come to Omaha to support their candidates.
Last month House Minority Whip Steve Scalise visited Bacon and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer made an appearance for Vargas.
Bacon and Vargas have agreed to two debates in October, but arguments over legislative records are already underway.
The Vargas campaign put out a press release claiming Bacon lied to voters in his first TV commercial. In the ad, Bacon’s wife, Angie, said she was especially proud that her husband “capped insulin prices at $35 a month.”
Bacon was one of 12 Republicans to vote for a bill in the House that would’ve capped insulin prices, but the measure was blocked by Senate Republicans.
Under the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed into law last month, the cost of insulin for patients on Medicare will be capped at $35 a month starting in January. Bacon voted against the Inflation Reduction Act.
In a statement after the vote, Bacon took issue with several aspects of the bill, including the $80 billion investment in the IRS over the next 10 years.
“This reckless and partisan bill is bad for Nebraska families, bad for Nebraska businesses, and bad for America’s energy sector,” Bacon said.
Witmer and Adkins said they expect the Supreme Court decision on abortion will play a big role in the race.
Bacon has said he “will always fight to defend the right to life.” In the past he has not supported abortion except to save the life of the mother and has sought federal restrictions.
Vargas has said he believes decisions a woman makes about her body are personal and “politicians have no place telling her what she can and cannot do.” Vargas voted against a bill in the Legislature that would have primed Nebraska to ban all abortions when the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
Adkins said for the average voter the 2nd District race hasn’t really started yet, but voters will start to see things heat up.
“This is the thing about the 2nd District, it leans Republican just a little bit, and the Republican, doesn’t matter who the Republican is, they’re never going to be able to take this district lightly,” Adkins said. “This is one of the more competitive districts in the country.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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Emily is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Emily covered K-12 education, local government and the Nebraska Legislature. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.
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