With the primary election about nine weeks away, two Republicans and two Democrats are in the race to represent the Omaha-based 2nd congressional district.
Incumbent Republican Don Bacon is seeking his fourth term in Congress. Bacon, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, defeated Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford in 2016 and won re-election twice.
Despite former President Donald Trump’s call for a Republican challenger to Bacon, the congressman’s only opposition in the May primary is political newcomer and self-proclaimed “absolute nobody,” Gretna’s Steve Kuehl. A second Republican challenger, Jim Schultze, had entered the race but dropped out before the March 1 filing deadline.
The winner of the GOP primary will face the Democratic winner, either State Sen. Tony Vargas or Alisha Shelton.
Vargas was first elected to represent District 7, which covers southeast and downtown Omaha, in the Legislative Assembly in 2016. He was re-elected in 2020 and cannot run for a third consecutive term due to term limits.
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Prior to becoming a state senator, Vargas was appointed to the Omaha Public Schools Board in 2013.
Shelton, a mental health practitioner, previously sought the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Senator Ben Sasse in 2020. She received support from the state Democratic Party after the primary winner lost support party.
Chris Janicek, a baker from Omaha, had won the nomination but faced a furor over explicit comments he made about a staff member. Janicek never dropped out of the race and his name appeared on the ballot, but the party’s state central committee voted to replace him with Shelton. Sasse won hands down.
The candidates are vying to represent the 2nd District, a swing district where Democrats and Republicans compete. In the last four presidential elections, voters in the 2nd District have backed Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, Republican Trump in 2016, and Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.
In this 2020 election, some voters in the 2nd District apparently split their tickets, voting Biden for President and Bacon for Congress. It helped Bacon defeat his Democratic challenger, Kara Eastman, by several percentage points and secure a third term in Congress, even as Biden won the district and his lone Electoral College vote.
The redistricting carried out last year modified the composition of the 2nd arrondissement. It now includes Saunders County, western Sarpy County, and all of Douglas County, including Omaha.
Even with the redrawn map, Biden would have claimed the Electoral College vote for the 2nd District, according to a World-Herald analysis.
Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said it’s unclear how new borders and a new swath of voters will play out in this year’s race for Congress.
“I just don’t think we know until we walk through it the first time,” Adkins said. “And then we can get a better idea.”
Both Adkins and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said Biden’s low approval rating was a major factor in the upcoming election. Historically, the incumbent president’s party usually loses seats in midterm elections.
“Not only do Democrats have an uphill battle with a redesigned district, they also have an uphill battle with a president who’s pretty unpopular right now,” Theiss-Morse said.
Adkins said Democrats will have to find ways to challenge Bacon in what should be a good year for a Republican.
The Cook Political Report, which assesses the congressional races, considers the 2nd District race “probably Republican.”
Theiss-Morse and Adkins also both predicted the economy will likely be a big deal this election cycle as voters think about inflation, supply chain issues and how much they have to pay for goods. and services.
“I think a lot of people are going to end up being pocket voters this year,” Adkins said.
Heading into the primary, Bacon has more money than any other candidate in the race. He had $977,664 in the bank in 2022, according to fundraising reports. It raised around $727,947 in the last quarter of 2021.
Kuehl, Bacon’s challenger, entered the race in late February and has yet to file a fundraising report.
On the Democratic side, Vargas had the most money on hand at the start of the year with $440,108, compared with $89,184 for Shelton.
Vargas also raised more money than her in the last quarter of 2021: $301,557 to $86,702.
When asked why he was running for re-election in an interview, Bacon gave a short answer: “I love my country.”
He added that he believed the country needed his national security experience and his ability and willingness to work across the aisle. Bacon noted that the Common Ground Committee, a nonpartisan group that opposes political polarization, ranked him the best in the country for his willingness to work with others.
Bacon welcomed his challenger into the GOP race. But he said he was comfortable going into the May primary based on what his own polls show, despite the former president’s criticism of him for voting for the bill. on the infrastructure of the Biden administration.
Trump issued a statement in January asking, “Does anyone want to run for Congress against Don Bacon in Nebraska?
Asked about Trump’s criticisms, Bacon said he was not a yes and would instead do the right thing for his district and the people he represents. He said he believes voters like it, he’s conservative but also independent-minded.
Democrats disagreed with this assessment and on a website called “Flip that Bacon”, the Nebraska Democratic Party accuses Bacon of caring “more about pleasing his party leadership than the hard workers of Nebraska. who elected him”.
Nebraska GOP Chairman Dan Welch called Bacon “a rock-solid conservative who has proven to be a strong voice for Nebraska.”
Bacon has been endorsed by prominent Republicans across the state, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, former Gov. Dave Heineman, numerous state senators and local elected officials.
It has also been endorsed by the Omaha Police Officers Association.
Kuehl, Bacon’s challenger, is a sales consultant at White Castle Roofing. He said in an interview that he had the utmost respect for Bacon and was unaware of Trump’s call for someone to challenge the congressman.
“I’m absolutely nobody and I’m ok with that,” Kuehl wrote on social media after entering the race. “What doesn’t sit well with me is that ordinary, good people never get a seat at ‘their’ table. It’s not ‘their’ table, we bought the table and pay all the household bills.”
Kuehl said he realized he probably had no chance of beating Bacon, but said he was running because he could give ordinary Americans an honest voice.
On the Democratic side, Vargas and Shelton both said their upbringing inspired them to run for Congress.
Vargas’ parents immigrated to the United States from Peru and worked hard every day to give their children opportunities that weren’t available to them, the state senator said.
Among the first generation of his family to graduate from college, Vargas moved to Omaha in 2012 while his wife was pursuing a law degree.
Nebraskans deserve access to affordable health care, decent-paying jobs that actually support families, and affordable prescription drugs, Vargas said.
“What we’ve seen and what I’m hearing is people are struggling,” Vargas said. “Washington doesn’t work for ordinary people. We feel it at the gas pump and at the grocery store, in their paychecks, there doesn’t seem to be any real relief in sight.
Vargas said he was running because he believed that during his elective term he had led hope, idealism and tried to solve problems. He said that although the country is divided, he thinks it can be different.
Vargas was endorsed by Bob Kerrey, who served as governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska.
Shelton moved to Omaha when she was 12 and was raised by a single mother with seven siblings. She is a graduate of Omaha Public Schools.
“As a mental health therapist, someone who has worked in this district in many roles and capacities, I want to stand up for the people I talk to every day, for the people I love who live here, for all the families,” Shelton mentioned.
Shelton said she supports raising the minimum wage and regularly conducting a study to understand when it’s time to raise it again. She also said she wanted to expand affordable health care, reduce prescription drug costs and have a climate change plan and action.
Shelton said she believed in public schools and did not believe in school choice. She said the 2nd District needs an advocate who will be in the community and understand what is happening in the district.
Shelton was backed by Eastman, who lost twice to Bacon.