Who is Kara Eastman? First-Time Female Candidate Stuns Democratic Establishment in Nebraska’s Primaries

A first-time female candidate edged out the party favorite in a Nebraska House primary, dealing the Democratic establishment one of its first major blows this cycle. 

Kara Eastman, a progressive community organizer, defeated primary competitor Brad Ashford Tuesday night in a barn burner, clinching a narrow 51.4 percent of the vote in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District. Nebraska currently has no women serving in the House and has only ever sent one female representative to the House, period. 

When Eastman announced her campaign last year, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to try to garner support for her candidacy. At the time, she was the only candidate who had filed to run on the Democratic ticket in the district. She said the DCCC told her that, should there be a contested primary, they'd likely stay out of it. Eastman said the staffers checked in with her about once every couple of weeks until, eventually, the communication dropped off in December.

A month later, the DCCC named Brad Ashford—a former congressman who lost his 2016 race to Don Bacon, the current Republican incumbent—to its Red to Blue program

The DCCC's decision to back Ashford, who's known for his anti-choice voting record as a state legislator, over Eastman, a fresh face running a progressive campaign with platforms like Medicare for all, tuition-free college and gun control, is just the latest in the committee's intervention in primary contests. Democratic strategists and candidates themselves say, by meddling early on, the establishment may be stymieing the party's promised blue wave.

But it wasn't just the DCCC: Major national progressive organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America didn't endorse Eastman, according to a report from The Intercept earlier this month, and other women's groups and pro-choice organizations like EMILY's List and Planned Parenthood Action Fund didn't respond to the outlet's requests for comment about whether they'd be backing a candidate in Nebraska's 2nd District.

"If we had the support of the DCCC, those groups would probably be more likely to support my campaign; I think that's a shame," Eastman told Newsweek in March. "I think there are people who are disappointed and tired of this establishment that seems to be supporting certain candidates over others. The district is craving someone who is a lifelong Democrat—someone who's running on a platform like I am."

Tuesday's results suggested Eastman was right. 

Eastman's upset is another sign that progressive, female candidates may be the ones to flip House seats and win back control of at least one arm of Congress for Democrats, even if the establishment has signaled a preference for safe, moderate candidates with more traditional political experience.

"This is a huge win for progressives, and I think it signals that the base doesn't want milquetoast centrist candidates," Sean McElwee, a researcher and co-founder at Data for Progress, a progressive polling and analysis firm, told Newsweek Tuesday night. "They want real progressives."

McElwee, though, believes Eastman could have seen a larger margin of victory over Ashford had EMILY's List and its ilk backed her campaign from the outset. Afterall, McElwee pointed out—the race was never supposed to be this close.

"Groups like EMILY's List and NARAL are supposed to be supporting pro-choice women, but instead they stood aside and let the DCCC tell them who to annoint," he said. "But the big thing to remember going forward is that progressives shouldn't be intimidated by the establishment. At the end of the day, the progressive message is where the base is at."

Eastman will go on to face off against Ashford's former adversary, Bacon, in a district Cook Political Report has deemed a toss-up. In March, Eastman said she believes she's exactly the kind of candidate who can excite the district's Democratic base and swing it away from Republican control.

"The desire to support more conservative candidates seems like the desire to keep the status quo," Eastman said. "What we need right now is change."