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Bacon beats back Frei in GOP primary test; Vargas awaits

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Bacon beats back Frei in GOP primary test; Vargas awaits

May 15, 2024 | 2:12 am ET
By Aaron Sanderford
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Bacon beats back Frei in GOP primary test; Vargas awaits
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Nebraska voters in the state's 2nd Congressional District will face a rematch between Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas, left, and U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. Courtesy of the candidates; Capitol photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

OMAHA — After months of sound and fury from an active group of partisans, GOP primary voters in Nebraska’s most competitive congressional district sided with the man they know, U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, over one promising a more combative style, Dan Frei.

While some early votes returned on Election Day remain to be counted on Friday, Bacon, of Papillion, led Frei, of Omaha 62%-38% by 12:10 a.m. Wednesday. The margin was closer than the 50-point edge Bacon’s campaign polling indicated, but wider than Frei’s last run.

Bacon beats back Frei in GOP primary test; Vargas awaits
Nebraska GOP congressional candidate Dan Frei speaks to supporters at his election night gathering. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

In 2014, Frei mounted an upstart bid from the tea party right against then-U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., losing by six percentage points. Some Terry supporters said the primary weakened Terry in the general election. He lost that year to the late U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb.

This time, Frei had institutional help and endorsements from the new-look Nebraska Republican Party and the populists they encouraged to take over the leadership committees of all three county parties in the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District.

It was not enough. In a year when the state GOP endorsed none of the five GOP members of the state’s congressional delegation and when none sought the party’s endorsement, all five incumbents won their races by significant margins.

“The majority of our party in Nebraska (District) 2 are conservatives who want to govern,” Bacon said. “They’re rational…. I think negative campaigning to the degree that we saw, it backfired. We campaigned on our record as the most effective Republican in the House. We delivered results.”

GOP division could cost Bacon

Bacon said it was time for some reflection by the state GOP and county GOP leaders who he said had “weakened the party and weakened the conservative movement in Nebraska.” Party officials had no immediate comment.

“We had a big win tonight,” he said. “‘Burn it all down, we demand 100 percent’ … it doesn’t work.”

Bacon beats back Frei in GOP primary test; Vargas awaits
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., talks about his campaign to a supporter holding signs on Tuesday May 14, 2024, in Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Political observers who spoke with the Examiner in recent weeks expected Frei to notch a final result between 25% and 35% of the vote. Some said he could get more support, which they said would indicate some unhappiness with Bacon and the status quo.

The most recent protest vote against Bacon came in 2022, after former President Donald Trump criticized Bacon during a visit to the state and mentioned an alternative — Republican Steve Kuehl, a first-time candidate who garnered 23% of the vote.

Others also said a low-turnout race could help energize Frei’s candidacy. Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said 26% of registered voters participated in Tuesday’s election. while Sarpy County had 22% turnout. Both counties were running below pre-election projections. Saunders County finished with nearly 30% turnout.

Paul Landow, a retired University of Nebraska at Omaha political scientist who has worked with Democratic campaigns, said the Frei numbers indicate a little bit of risk to Bacon in a district where a handful of percentage points could spur a loss.

“There’s a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the system, the election, Trump, Bacon, whatever they are dissatisfied with,” Landow said. “But most of those people will come home to Don Bacon in November.” 

Bacon treated Frei like threat

Bacon and his campaign made clear that they took the Frei challenge seriously, knocking on  tens of thousands of doors and spending more on advertising than the typical brand-building efforts before a general election with a lesser opponent.

Awaiting Bacon in the fall is State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, in a rematch of their 2022 race, which Bacon won by about three percentage points, but under different conditions. A presidential race will be on the ballot this year, too, which will affect who turns out at the polls.

Bacon beats back Frei in GOP primary test; Vargas awaits
State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, the Democratic nominee for the 2nd District House race in the Omaha area, waves to a supporter. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“I don’t think people are saying they are energized by the rematch,” Vargas said. “They’re energized because this is an opportunity to have different leadership for this district.”

Frei said he had not yet formally conceded or heard from Bacon late Tuesday. He said it remained to be seen whether he would endorse Bacon in the general election. For now, he said, he wants to see the final results of his race.

“Change doesn’t always look and feel like what you want it to look and feel like, but change is happening,” Frei told his supporters. “Change is taking place right now in your Republican Party, and you need to be proud of that.”

Several attendees at Frei’s election night party said they hope Bacon loses to Vargas. A handful of the hardest-line conservatives who helped power Frei’s bid have said they might seek a different candidate to help beat Bacon in the fall.

Vargas said party dysfunction is a feature of the modern GOP — and of the House GOP in particular. He said Republicans “can’t find unity amongst themselves,” let alone lead. On abortion, on Social Security and more, Vargas said, the GOP is out of step.

“If they can’t figure out how to govern right now in Congress,” Vargas said, “then they shouldn’t be the ones in leadership right now.”

Bacon and his allies have made clear that they intend to paint Vargas as the one who is out of step with the 2nd District. Bacon has called Vargas soft on crime, silent on immigration enforcement and wrong on abortion.