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Opinion Lessons from Nebraska that show how progressive candidates can win

A sign on the side of a car during a New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance protest in the city on May 1. (Emily Kask/Bloomberg News)
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Two years ago I wrote about what Kara Eastman’s victory in the Democratic primary for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District meant for the party. Eastman’s narrow win, without the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), was “stunning,” I said. “If there is to be a Democratic wave, it is outside insurgents such as Eastman who will drive it.”

This month, Eastman took 62 percent of the primary vote, about double the share of her next-closest competitor. Her landslide victory is a story of persistence. Eastman lost in the 2018 general election, but she rebounded from that and her DCCC snub. This time, with the help of the DCCC and the backing of Emily’s List and other groups, she has a real shot at winning in November — despite the pandemic, the economic crisis and the fact that Nebraska remains a deeply red state.

Progressives like Eastman are the future of the Democratic Party. Progressives like Eastman are teaching other candidates, up and down the ballot, how to win — no matter the geography or the catastrophe.

Here’s the first lesson: Don’t shy away from progressivism. Embrace it.

While the Democratic presidential primaries failed to surface a victor from the party’s progressive wing, progressives are winning the war of ideas. Former vice president Joe Biden, working with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has created star-studded policy task forces on climate change and immigration. The presumptive Democratic nominee has also proposed lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 and expanding student debt forgiveness.

Candidates like Eastman understand that these proposals appeal to more than progressives. Last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 77 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of Republicans, support earlier access to Medicare.

Even in places where Democrats didn’t win big in 2018, Medicaid expansion did. In Idaho, Nebraska and Utah, hundreds of thousands of Americans voted to expand public insurance programs. Jane Kleeb, the chair of Nebraska’s Democratic Party, explains in her book “Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America”: “A deep sense of fairness is at the core of America’s rural communities. Progressive and populist roots run deep in rural communities.”

In those communities and others, interest in progressive policies has been reinforced by the tragedy of the pandemic. The public health and economic crises have exposed holes in our social safety net. Policies once considered idealistic have taken on real-world urgency. A public health emergency that has wiped out millions of jobs strengthens the case for a health-care system that guarantees coverage irrespective of employment. Similarly, the pandemic’s threat to polling places and long lines of voters argues for automatic voter registration and universal voting by mail.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

On the campaign trail, Eastman has connected progressivism with pragmatism. After her primary win, she tweeted about building a coalition and welcomed support from all Democrats, “Independents and disgruntled Republicans too.” During the general election, Eastman might get a boost from Biden ads focused on Iowa and ads against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that, targeting western Iowa, run in the Omaha market.

Still, to make policy cases, candidates have to cut through the noise — and lately there’s a lot of noise.

The most extreme pandemic punditry has sown conspiracy theories about the outbreak’s origin and spread dangerous misinformation about health risks. Even in mainstream media reports on pandemic inequities, a narrative of class divisions has depicted working-class Americans as eager to get back to life as normal no matter the cost.

But as Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out, this class stratification is not represented in the data. A recent Post-Ipsos poll found that 74 percent say “the U.S. should keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed.”

Which brings us to another lesson: Don’t believe the hype.

The Midwest is often cast as Trump Country and races there dismissed as unwinnable for Democrats. But the heartland shouldn’t be written off. As John Nichols wrote for the Nation in 2018, voters everywhere, including those in rural America, simply want their politicians to show up, listen to them and offer concrete plans that address the socioeconomic issues in their communities.

By listening to the union workers, farmers and immigrants most affected by the pandemic; by focusing on women, who have proved they can deliver elections anywhere; and by promoting bold but practical ideas that will help keep people safe, employed and insured, progressive candidates can win in the Midwest and help other Democrats compete.

Perhaps the most important thing Eastman can teach is the power of resilience. Sometimes, winning takes more than one campaign. And sometimes, when door-knockers are stuck inside and get-out-the-vote goes virtual, a little ingenuity and a lot of phone banking can go a long way.

No race is unwinnable, and no votes are ungettable. Those are key takeaways for progressives everywhere.

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Paul Waldman: Democrats are in a strong position for the fall. So why all the hand-wringing?

Katrina vanden Heuvel: This crisis has created a new and profound sense of solidarity

Katrina vanden Heuvel: The Democratic wave won’t crest without progressive insurgents

David Ignatius: We’re witnessing the reemergence of the moderate Democrat

Henry Olsen: Elizabeth Warren persisted — and broke the progressive cause in the process