Progressive Groups Make Last-Minute Push for Kara Eastman, as Corporate Democrats Prep Victory Lap

The corporate group Third Way is borderline giddy that a progressive Democrat may lose her House race.

Democratic candidate for Nebraska's 2nd House District Kara Eastman laughs during a debate against Rep. Don Bacon R-Neb., in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Democratic candidate for Nebraska's 2nd House District Kara Eastman during a debate against Rep. Don Bacon R-Neb., in Omaha, Neb., on Oct. 18, 2018. Photo: Nati Harnik/AP

Leading progressive organizations have joined together for a final-week, six-figure ad buy for the heavily outspent progressive Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, even as a corporate Democratic group begins an early victory lap, forecasting her defeat.

The ad features a Trump voter touting Eastman’s support for “Medicare for All,” a rare rebuttal to the enduring conservative ad barrage against the idea.

Two groups that had declined to back her during the primary — EMILY’s List and House Majority PAC, the main independent expenditure arm for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is in charge of electing House Democrats — are also helping fund the ad. EMILY’s List controversially declined to endorse Eastman in her contest against a male Democrat, former Rep. Brad Ashford, with an anti-abortion record. Ashford had the backing of the DCCC.

Just two weeks ago, House Majority PAC pulled planned ads for Eastman’s bid against incumbent Republican Don Bacon, in an Omaha-area swing district that Trump won in 2016 by only 2 points. The withdrawal of support had officials from Third Way, a corporate-backed group that pushes Democrats in a conservative direction, crowing.

Third Way co-founder Jim Kessler maintained on Twitter that Nebraska’s 2nd District was “a race we should be winning, but the candidate is unfortunately too far left.”

The race has become a flashpoint for a meta-argument between D.C.-based liberal and centrist groups over how to best win elections in the age of Trump. Eastman, a public health nonprofit executive, was one of only two insurgent candidates to defeat a DCCC-backed challenger in a primary this year. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley both beat incumbents.)

If Eastman wins the general election, a blow would be dealt to the well-worn argument that Democrats must trim their sails in swing-seat races. Yet left out of the conversation is the role of money, as Eastman is being outspent by 2-1 when Republican outside money is factored in.

While FiveThirtyEight forecasts the race as a toss-up, several polls have shown Eastman trailing in the mid- to high single digits.

This has delighted people like Third Way’s Jonathan Cowan, who went after Eastman in a debate this month. Calling Eastman a “Bernie-style populist,” Cowan claimed that she “is getting crushed,” proving “we can’t win general elections with a set of socialist ideas and candidates that most Democratic primary voters just rejected.”

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, or PCCC, which produced the ad, criticized the centrist message. “They are barking from the sidelines,” he said. “We all want her to win, some of us did something about it and some of us didn’t.”

The TV ad, which will run through Election Day on broadcast and cable, features lifelong Republican Jeff Schlichting, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, touting the competitive advantages businesses would gain if America switched to a “Medicare for All”-style program. “As a financial analyst, I know American businesses pay too much for health insurance, giving foreign companies an advantage,” says Schlichting. “But Democrat Kara Eastman knows that if all Americans could get Medicare, it would save money for families and businesses, and we could increase benefits for seniors.”

The messaging addresses two complaints about “Medicare for All” that have been beamed into millions of homes this election season by Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund, including into Nebraska’s 2nd District. CLF’s ads typically highlight that “Medicare for All” will cost $32 trillion over 10 years — a misleading figure that doesn’t take into account that this would decrease national health expenditures by $2 trillion, meaning that the transition would save Americans money while covering more people — and that adding people into the program will degrade it for seniors.

“We try to rebut both of those,” said Green, highlighting Schlichting’s comments that “Medicare for All” saves money and that seniors’ experience would improve under the new system, with less cost-sharing and more comprehensive benefits.

Mike Bocian, a pollster who has worked with the DCCC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he thought the ad’s approach was effective. “It attacks the Republican for votes damaging to your health care, like taking away pre-existing conditions, but it also calls out the ridiculousness of their attack,” said Bocian, who has also consulted for the PCCC but was not involved in the ad. “It’s a really interesting ad approach, and any which way you cut it, the fact that we’re debating health care is good for the Democrats.”

Until this ad buy, Eastman had been pummeled with outside spending, which hasn’t been taken into account in the debate over whether progressives can win swing seats.

The Congressional Leadership Fund has spent a total of $1,274,530 in the district on radio and TV, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Meanwhile, the DCCC, while listing Eastman on its “Red to Blue” roster of candidates, has made no meaningful contribution to her campaign. This has led to suspicions that national Democrats walked off the playing field in a race in which the candidate didn’t share their ideological priors and defeated their preferred option.

Eastman has been competitive in fundraising, raising nearly $2.4 million for the campaign. But Bacon has benefited from $1.75 million in outside advertising on his behalf in the race; Eastman has gotten just $68,935.

For their part, Eastman’s campaign told NBC News that they didn’t want outside groups running negative ads against her opponent and that she “has all the resources she needs to be competitive.” But as Green pointed out, while Eastman has outspent Bacon 2 to 1 on television ads placed by the campaigns, when you add the outside spending, she’s been outspent by 2 to 1.

Progressive groups have also been publicly criticized for not coming to the rescue of Eastman sooner. The PCCC did direct $70,000 in donations from supporters to Eastman’s campaign, as well as to staff support. The Progressive Turnout Project, another coalition partner, has invested $210,000 in the district for field organizers.

With the ad, liberal groups not only stepped up, but they were able to coax House Majority PAC back into the district for the final week, although it’s unclear exactly how much they contributed in funding. But lacking a large fundraising infrastructure to support candidates, liberal groups cannot mount the air power that national Democratic organizations can.

Change Campaign Super PAC, the campaign spending arm of the PCCC, sponsored the ad. Other groups supporting it include NARAL Pro-Choice America, Democracy for America, Working Families Party, Progressive Turnout Project, Climate Hawks Vote, MoveOn, and #VoteProChoice.

In a related campaign, a $20,000 digital ad buy from Fair and Balanced PAC, run by longtime liberal strategist Mike Lux, a Nebraska native, hits Bacon for voting for the bipartisan bank deregulation bill passed earlier this year. The ad highlights the provision that allows 85 percent of all banks and credit unions to more easily engage in racial discrimination, by rolling back data requirements that would enable regulators to detect fair lending abuses.

It’s one of the first Democratic ads to highlight the bank deregulation bill, also known as the Crapo bill because of its lead author, Idaho Republican and Senate Banking Committee Chair Mike Crapo. National Democrats have perhaps shied away from targeting supporters of that legislation because 16 Democrats in the Senate and 33 in the House voted for it.

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