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By Chris Opfer
Nebraska Democrat Brad Ashford, a “blue dog” known for crossing the aisle to side with Republicans on marquee labor issues, won’t be returning to Congress next year after losing in a primary race.
Ashford burnished a reputation as a centrist in one term before being unseated by Republican Don Bacon in 2016. Social worker Kara Eastman narrowly edged out Ashford May 15 in a district that includes most of metropolitan Omaha. She ran to the left of Ashford, including by pushing for Medicare for all, and will face Bacon in the November election.
“Prairie populism is alive and well,” Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told Bloomberg Law. “Kara Eastman proved to the Democratic establishment that the way to motivate voters in red and purple areas is to campaign on bold progressive policies.”
Eastman’s three-percentage-point victory came after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threw its weight behind Ashford. The win offers mixed signals on the path forward for Democrats looking to retake control in the House. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) in March won a hard-fought special election after distancing himself from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and party positions on health care and gun control.
“It’s a big diverse country, and activists in the same party differ from place to place,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told Bloomberg Law. Sabato said there was “no uniform pattern among Democrats” voting May 15 in primary contests in Nebraska, Oregon, Idaho, and Pennsylvania. “No particular strain of ideology dominated, unless you count strong opposition to Trump an ideology,” Sabato said.
Ashford in one term in Congress criticized two central Obama administration labor policy priorities: Moves to make 4 million workers newly eligible for overtime pay and to tag more businesses in franchise, staffing, and other contract relationships as joint employers of each others’ workers for collective bargaining purposes. His opposition to those policies, despite supporting worker-friendly policies like raising the minimum wage, helped business advocates put a bipartisan face on efforts to block them.
An Ashford campaign official didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.
The question for Eastman is whether she can carry the momentum from her primary win into the general election in November. Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, beat Ashford by just more than one percentage point in 2016.
President Donald Trump won Nebraska convincingly in 2016, but Hilary Clinton carried Douglas County—which includes Omaha—by more than two percentage points.
Eastman said she plans to highlight Bacon’s voting record of siding with Trump on the campaign trail.
“He voted for the tax bill, he voted for the border wall, and he voted to take away people’s health care,” Eastman told Bloomberg Law. “These are things that I’ve heard from people across the district that they do not support.”
Four local unions endorsed Eastman in the primary race.
A Bacon campaign spokesman didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.
Ashford’s loss means there’s likely one less Democrat in the House who may be willing to side with businesses in key labor policy debates.
A federal judge in Texas near the end of the Obama administration stopped a Labor Department rule to double the salary threshold under which workers are automatically eligible for overtime pay. The DOL said the regulation would bolster paychecks, but Ashford and a wide range of Republicans and business groups said they were concerned it could cause businesses to shed jobs.
The Labor Department is expected to propose a more modest increase early next year.
Ashford also supported attempts to roll back a 2015 National Labor Relations Board decision expanding “joint employer” liability for affiliated businesses. Supporters of that decision, which is still in effect, said it would protect workers’ rights in an era of increasingly complicated mazes of contractual business arrangements.
The new, Republican-majority board recently announced that it will propose a regulation to clarify joint employer liability. The board is widely expected to revert to a previous standard that requires a business to exert direct control over another company’s workers to be considered their joint employer.
Advocates say that move would ensure that companies aren’t forced to collectively bargain with workers controlled by franchisers and staffing agencies.
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