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Bruising Bacon-Frei GOP primary bleeds into Bacon-Vargas rematch this fall

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Bruising Bacon-Frei GOP primary bleeds into Bacon-Vargas rematch this fall

May 21, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Aaron Sanderford
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Bruising Bacon-Frei GOP primary bleeds into Bacon-Vargas rematch this fall
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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 — Nebraska’s most competitive congressional race is set. It’s the expected rematch of Democratic State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha and Republican U.S. Rep. Don Bacon of Papillion. 

But unlike the first time Bacon and Vargas faced one another, the incumbent who built his reputation on catering to centrist voters is coming off a primary election that forced him to bank to the right.

Bruising Bacon-Frei GOP primary bleeds into Bacon-Vargas rematch this fall
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., talks about his campaign to a supporter holding signs on Tuesday in Omaha. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Bacon beat two-time GOP House candidate Dan Frei by 24 percentage points. But Frei made enough noise as a populist candidate with tea party roots to make Bacon work.

Last week’s 2nd District race was the first meaningful primary campaign for Bacon since his first contest in May 2016, when he beat former State Sen. Chip Maxwell of Omaha 66%-34%.

Bacon and his campaign this time around focused much of their advertising and social media messaging on the general election, but they were forced in spots to emphasize Bacon’s conservative stances, including on abortion.

Frei’s campaign used guerrilla tactics to organize and energize GOP partisans unhappy with the status quo, including people demanding loyalty to former President Donald Trump.

Frei criticized Bacon for waiting so long to endorse Trump. Bacon held off until after it was clear no other GOP candidate could win. Bacon endorsed Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Much of the Frei campaign was waged on social media and through 25,000 door-to-door contacts, while Bacon’s campaign emphasized banking early voting ballots, calls, texts and knocking on 40,000 doors.

Frei campaign tried energizing base

For Frei, online organizing helped him grab some headlines as leadership teams were flipped in the Douglas, Sarpy and Saunders County GOPs, leading to the three county parties’ endorsements of Frei.

Bruising Bacon-Frei GOP primary bleeds into Bacon-Vargas rematch this fall
Nebraska Republican congressional candidate Dan Frei speaks to a reporter at his election night party. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Frei sought but did not receive Trump’s endorsement or the backing of the House Freedom Caucus, a right-wing group that ousted former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, an ally of Bacon’s.

Most political observers who spoke to the Examiner in recent days said low turnout in the primary — about 24% in the 2nd District — likely helped Frei, although Frei’s campaign disagreed. 

“We were disappointed with the low turnout because we believed in our messaging,” said Patrick Peterson, a campaign consultant for Frei.

Several political observers argued that Bacon’s margin of victory showed that conservative populists aren’t reflective of the broader GOP primary electorate, although they are extremely active online and make up a sizable portion of the party’s base.

Others said Frei’s ability to motivate them could signal potential trouble generating enthusiasm from that group for Bacon.

Dems spent to soften Bacon

National Democratic-aligned groups have spent nearly $2 million on digital, TV and radio since early 2023 to criticize Bacon and drive up his negatives for the general election.

Some laid groundwork for issues in November, criticizing Bacon’s support for income tax cuts for top earners and his willingness to discuss potential ways to shore up Social Security, including some changes ads have criticized as cuts.

Most spots were paid for by Nebraska for Us and Unrig Our Economy, groups tied to the Hub Project. Others came from 314 Action, which backs Democrats focused on science and technology.

Bruising Bacon-Frei GOP primary bleeds into Bacon-Vargas rematch this fall
State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, the Democratic nominee for the 2nd District House race in the Omaha area, waves to a supporter who honked. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Democratic donors were already watching the 2nd District race because the slightly right-leaning Omaha-based district is one of only a handful of swing districts nationally.

Some perked up when they saw the new, more populist-led Nebraska Republican Party endorse Frei and send volunteers to Douglas, Sarpy and Saunders Counties to walk door-to-door.

But that backing couldn’t overcome incumbency, name recognition or campaign cash. Frei raised only $126,000 to Bacon’s $3.5 million, federal fundraising reports from late April show. 

GOP still backs Bacon

Bacon’s campaign said it was clear voters knew who Bacon was and did not want a different candidate. Bacon criticized Frei’s campaign for misleading people about his votes.

Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, drew heat from some Republicans for backing military aid to Ukraine and for helping pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“If you look around the country at Republican incumbents in swing House districts, we did better than most,” said Matthew Zacher, Bacon’s campaign manager.

Bacon got $673,000 in outside help from Big Red Leadership PAC, a group funded by U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks outside spending.

Much of that money was spent on biographical TV and radio ads reminding voters about Bacon. Ricketts, the state GOP’s top donor for years, also walloped a GOP-endorsed opponent in the primary. 

Paul Landow, a retired University of Nebraska at Omaha political scientist who has worked in Democratic campaigns, said he expects most Frei Republicans to find their way back to Bacon this fall.

But Bacon beat Vargas by only about three percentage points in 2022, and since this is a presidential year, that will bring out more voters on all sides, Landow said, so marginal changes could matter.

Some Frei supporters have suggested the possibility of mounting or supporting a third-party candidate to siphon support from Bacon. No one has yet filed paperwork to do so.

Endorsement questions

Frei has not endorsed Bacon. He waited until Friday to concede the race, and on Saturday he spoke against the state GOP making a blanket endorsement of the congressional delegation, which includes Bacon. The state GOP postponed a vote on whether to endorse the incumbent congressional delegates.

Vargas faced no primary. His campaign team has spent the past several months raising money and criticizing Bacon, saying he talks centrist and votes conservative.

At last check, Vargas had raised $2.4 million and had $1.6 million in campaign cash on hand. Bacon’s most recent report listed $1.7 million in cash on hand. Frei’s showed $41,268.

Vargas, according to Open Secrets’ most recent database update, faced $10,000 in outside spending against him. His campaign said they did not see any primary ad spending against him.