UPDATE, May 16, 8:40 a.m.: Kara Eastman won the Democratic primary for Nebraska’s District 2 after receiving 51.4 percent of the votes, according to the New York Times.
Democrat Kara Eastman decided to run for U.S. Congress in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District after watching her mother’s battle with cancer.
“She was diagnosed in 2016 with cancer for the fifth time,” Eastman told Rewire.News. “Five different types of cancer.” Even with Medicare, her mother’s prescription medication cost her $800 per month. And when the doctor prescribed another drug that would cost $2,500 per pill, her mother wasn’t able to afford the steep price tag.
“This was right at the time before the election where we were hearing about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act,” Eastman said. “And it just seemed like the stories of people like my mom weren’t getting out there, that we weren’t really thinking about actual people—and that even with Medicare—how can something be that outrageously expensive?”
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“My mom passed away about seven months ago and she wasn’t able to leave the house because she couldn’t afford that pill,” said Eastman. “So I started thinking about running.”
It’s experiences like these that inform her policy platform. She supports the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act and believes “health care is a right.” Eastman points to her time at the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, a nonprofit children’s environmental health organization she was hired to start, as another aspect of her background that contributed to these views.
“At Omaha Healthy Kids, the majority of the clients that we serve are people living in pretty extreme poverty and there’s such a disconnect between what that means for people in terms of getting decent jobs and how many jobs they have to work,” she told Rewire.News.
“There’s just so many ways that our health-care system is functioning to help certain people.”
Eastman’s positions have earned her the endorsement of national progressive groups and advocates including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Justice Democrats, and the Working Families Party.
Her stance on abortion is outlined clearly on her campaign site. “I support the right to privacy and women’s right to reproductive health,” it says. “And, if a woman chooses to exercise her reproductive freedom by having an abortion, she should not be shamed or condemned.”
She echoed the sentiment in speaking to Rewire.News. “I’ve always been pro-choice because I support freedom and believe that women are capable of making decisions about their own health care,” Eastman said. “Those decisions can obviously be difficult to make and should be private, and the government shouldn’t intervene in those.”
Eastman supports Planned Parenthood, age-appropriate sex education, the Expanded Medicare for All Act, and access to contraception. She does not support restrictions on abortion care, stating that “if we really wanted to prevent abortion, we would invest in health care, education, and reducing income inequality—those are ways that we can actually make a dent.”
“This is a time where we need somebody in this district who is going to stand up and fight for women,” she said. “And so that’s something I’m willing to do and would want to champion.”
Eastman said her campaign has knocked on more than 40,000 doors and is listening to voters about the issues they care about. Those include, she said, health care, education, and the environment.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the arm of the party that works to elect members to the U.S. House of Representatives, has lined up behind her primary rival, Brad Ashford—a former Republican, state legislator, and U.S. congressperson—adding him to their high-profile “red to blue” campaign.
That support comes despite Ashford’s record on reproductive rights. Ashford has claimed he has “always & will continue to support women’s right to choose.” But while in the state legislature he voted in favor of bills that would have restricted access to abortion care based on false premises including a 20-week abortion ban, which was signed into law. Speaking at that time on the state house floor, Ashford reportedly falsely claimed that “the line is 20 weeks” for abortion because “there is no question that there is fetal pain.” This is a myth parroted by conservatives to advocate for later abortion bans, despite the fact that medical experts agree a fetus cannot feel pain until later in pregnancy.
Ashford voted for a so-called informed consent measure later signed into law; it’s an unnecessary legislative intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship that forces doctors to offer an ultrasound to patients seeking abortion care. That bill was co-sponsored by Heath Mello, a Democrat who last spring sparked debate within the Democratic Party about its values when news broke that a high-ranking member of the Democratic National Committee would speak alongside him at a rally despite Mello’s anti-choice record in the state legislature. Weeks later, Mello lost his mayoral bid and suggested the controversy was at least partly responsible for his loss. Omaha, where Mello hoped to win office, is a part of Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.
Ashford was later elected to U.S. Congress, representing the same district he is running for now, before being unseated by now-incumbent Rep. Don Bacon (R). During his time in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ashford voted against anti-choice legislation, earning him a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America in a 2015 legislative scorecard.
Though his website doesn’t include a section on his platform, Ashford has suggested that he “doesn’t think a single-payer system is politically feasible, but he does support some changes such as allowing those 50 and older to buy into Medicare,” according to the Omaha World-Herald. During a recent debate, he reportedly elaborated on his position, saying that he instead supports repairing the Affordable Care Act.
Ashford’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.
DCCC Chairperson Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) has maintained that abortion rights would not be used as a litmus test for candidates receiving its help.
Eastman told Rewire.News she was “surprised” when the DCCC got involved in the race. “I had been talking to them as well and they had told me that they would not be getting involved,” she said. “But the party doesn’t choose the candidate, the voters do.”
She was candid about how she had volunteered on Mello’s campaign herself. “I have known Heath for a long time,” she said. “I volunteered on his campaign. I volunteered on Ashford’s campaign,” she added. “Not this time, last time.”
“I, like a lot of other people, wasn’t following every vote that my legislators took in the legislature or even in Congress,” Eastman said of the controversy surrounding Mello’s anti-choice record. She described herself as “disappointed” to learn about the mayoral candidate’s—and later Ashford’s—voting history on the issue.
No matter which Democrat wins, they’ll be staring down a tough election battle against Bacon. The Cook Political Report, which analyzes the probability of election outcomes, rates the race for Nebraska’s District 2 as a “Republican toss-up,” meaning either party could win it.
Though a Republican holds the seat, Eastman noted her district “is one of the most highly contested districts in the nation right now.” That doesn’t mean a Democrat needs to swing to the right in order to win it.
“What we continuously hear in the district is, ‘Oh, it takes either a Republican to be in the seat or a conservative Democrat.’ So we run conservative Democrats and they lose,” she said. “What we need right now and what is exciting the base is a real Democrat. I’m the only life-long Democrat running. I’m running a very strong grassroots campaign with a positive message about the things that I stand for and want to accomplish.”
“What we’re finding is that voters are engaged and excited,” Eastman continued. “And this is absolutely winnable, but we have to be speaking about the values of the people of the district and actually be willing to go out and talk, and more importantly listen to the voters.”