The Other Eastman Memo
The only Justice Democrats-backed candidate to run in a swing district was the most critical under-performer of 2020.
While a particular Eastman memo has gotten a great deal of attention over the last couple months, there’s another who hasn’t received nearly enough as Democrats debate the paths forward to retaining a majority.
In October 2020, The Intercept published a thorough overview of Kara Eastman’s NE-02 campaign and issued a dire warning for the far-left should she lose. The crux of the argument was that groups like Sunrise and Justice Democrats were missing a critical chance to prove that far-left candidate can compete in and win swing districts — and that losses would again prove the post-2018 Third Way analysis was correct (spoiler: it was).
This article/memo includes a few nods to winning for the good of democracy (such as the concept — also proven false — that higher turnout would be the driver of a Biden securing the electoral college vote awarded by winning the district). But the main takeaway is that the far-left would have to be capable of winning swing districts to have a stronger argument in shaping the party’s electoral future. It is time to revisit that concept. But first, a few things our team was reading this week:
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
Mandatory Read: Steve Bullock is a Democrat who knows how to win in red-leaning states. In a recent opinion piece, he calls on his liberal colleagues to get out of the city more.
Volatility — not polarization — is the defining feature of our politics today. Sean Bock and Landon Schnabel on how more Americans than usual have been changing parties.
Carlos Odio and Rachel Stein make sense of Donald Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters in 2020. See part two of their 2020 Post-Mortem: The American Dream Voter.
Kara Eastman was a social worker and founder of a lead safety nonprofit when she decided to run for Congress in 2018. She entered the Democratic primary contest as a maverick left-wing outsider, challenging the center-left, DCCC-backed former Congressman Brad Ashford, who was running to reclaim his seat. But unlike the winning progressive archetype, Eastman wasn’t running in deep-blue Brooklyn or Boston — she was seeking to represent Nebraska’s second Congressional district, a swing district with a slight right tilt that includes the city of Omaha and a more rural military base. Donald Trump had won the district (which also has its own slate of national electors) by three points in 2016, and its Congressional seat at the time was occupied by Republican incumbent Don Bacon.
Yet, as POLITICO wrote of the race, Eastman opted to run “a Brooklyn-style campaign” in her midwestern swing district, campaigning on a sweeping left-wing policy agenda (including “Medicare for All” and tuition-free public college) in hopes of turning out the progressive base. The strategy proved effective in the Democratic Primary — Eastman defeated Ashford by just over three points — but failed in the general election, where she lost to Bacon by two points despite Democrats’ nine-point national advantage in the “blue wave.”
Eastman ran it back in 2020, defeating her former primary opponent’s wife in the Democratic Primary to get a rematch with Rep. Bacon. While the DCCC had waited to support Eastman until late in the 2018 election, the House Democrats’ premier campaign arm wasted no time getting behind her in 2020, pouring more than $3 million into her election effort alongside substantial investments from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, and others. Eastman doubled down on her left-wing policy stances and did little to distance herself from aspects of the Democrats’ national brand (such as widely-perceived sympathy for the “Defund the Police” movement) that were all but certain to be liabilities in a swing district. Republican attacks on Eastman simply linked her to Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and she was quickly she was quickly branded “Comrade Kara” by her opponent. (It’s worth noting that these linkages certainly didn’t come from out of the blue: the NRCC obviously conducted testing and found that the mere inclusion of the Bernie/AOC brands alongside Eastman’s was enough to turn off key voters in her district.)
The 2020 results? Biden won the district by nearly seven points — a roughly 10-point swing from 2016 — while Eastman lost by about five points. This 12-point difference means 6% of voters cast split tickets for Biden and Bacon. GOP Rep. Bacon outperformed Trump by about 17,000 votes. Not only is Eastman the lone Justice Democrats-backed candidate to have run in a swing district, but, in losing a district that Joe Biden won handily, she was the Democratic Party’s most critical under-performer in the cycle.
The Intercept called for progressive groups such as Justice Democrats to make substantial investments in the NE-2 race in order to put Eastman over the edge. They invested. Eastman lost. Worse for the far-left — as The Intercept acknowledged it would be — she lost her district while Biden won there, trailing him by a gaping margin.
Eastman has tried to rationalize her loss by suggesting that the deck was simply stacked insurmountably against any Democrat running for Congress in the district, arguing that it wouldn’t have mattered who was running in her position. But other local Democrats disagree: as the Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman said of the race, “if you just look at how Biden performed versus [Eastman], [Eastman] did not fit the district.” What might a better fit look like for NE-2? Ashford might have something to say about that: prior to winning the seat as a Democrat, he had also run for other elected offices as a Republican and independent.
The takeaway here isn’t complicated: the far-left can knock out incumbents or win open primaries in deep-blue districts, but it has yet to win in the critical swing districts that decide control of Congress. Despite making for a catchy headline, it’s a losing strategy to run a Brooklyn-style campaign in the heartland. As noted previously, Justice Democrats and Our Revolution have flipped zero Republican-held Congressional seats — ever. The far-left brand is distinctly unpopular in flippable districts; and the relative lack of interest on the part of the hundreds of staffers and the millions of dollars invested in left-wing entities demonstrates little appetite to disprove this recent track record moving forward. As FiveThirtyEight has demonstrated, these entities are becoming more selective in targeting incumbents. That targeting appears to abandon swing districts altogether moving forward.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote this week that Democrats will lose elections as long as they “run away” from culture issues — but the progressive movement has already run away from the swing districts in which those elections are decided. For a reminder of who in the party will win back swing districts, look at the record and re-read the Online Left’s Eastman memo.