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Congressional Candidates Battle For The Middle Ground In Nebraska Debate 

In a debate on Oct. 13 to represent Nebraska’s Omaha area in Congress, Don Bacon and Tony Vargas each vied to portray himself as the more proven bipartisan candidate.

It’s a close race. Of the two most recent polls listed on the website FiveThirtyEight, one favored the Democrat Vargas, and the other favored the Republican Bacon, each by a single point.

Politico analyst Steve Shepard listed the race as “leans Republican” in April but changed it to “Toss-up” this month because “GOP Rep. Don Bacon is facing a stronger opponent in Tony Vargas than Democrats have fielded in recent elections.”

Shepard said that Bacon won reelection in 2020 despite Joe Biden taking it by seven points, and redistricting didn’t change it that much.

In the debate the pair appeared to be fighting to appeal to swing voters and the undecided.

A former Air Force general first elected in 2016, Bacon cited his rankings for bipartisanship by Georgetown University, which listed him as the third most bipartisan member of Congress.

And he mentioned some stands he’s taken that might have been tough for a Republican, like one to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 election. He said 33 labor unions supported him.

Tony Vargas, a Democratic Nebraska state senator, is running a close race against Republican incumbent Don Bacon in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. Politico says Vargas is a stronger candidate than Democrats have fielded there in the past. (Courtesy of Tony Vargas for Congress.)

Vargas, a state senator and former high school science teacher, said he was named a “taxpayer defender” by a conservative fiscal organization, “one of two Democrats in the Nebraska Legislature to actually get that title. And that’s why when I worked with Republicans, we actually voted, and I stepped up to buck the Democratic Party and work with Republicans to vote for tax relief.”

And each accused the other of not meeting that measure. Vargas pointed to Bacon’s repeated slams of the Biden administration and attempts to link Vargas to him and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Bacon meanwhile said Vargas would be a sure vote with the decidedly partisan Biden-Pelosi Democratic leadership in Congress.

When Bacon noted Vargas’ support of “abortion on demand” put him in the same class with the leaders of China and North Korea, Vargas chided him for that. “I hope you just saw,” he told the audience, “that this is the reason why people don’t like politics. It’s because of things like that.”

The hour-long debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and held at the Omaha Press Club, covered many vital issues of the day, including immigration, abortion, the economy, Jan. 6, climate change, and student loan debt.

Moderator Brian Mastre of Omaha’s WOWT TV station posed the questions.

Asked by Mastre about inflation, Bacon said economists like Larry Summers tie it to “reckless spending” by the administration. “I have voted against $12 trillion in reckless spending.”

“Inflation is the No. 1 issue by two to one,” Bacon said. “The average family has lost $5,000 in spending power. That is a problem. People right now go to the grocery store using credit cards because they can’t afford groceries and they can’t afford utilities.”

Vargas said he’d done his part in the Nebraska Legislature, “making sure we’re controlling costs. We’ve had balanced budgets, and because of that, we’ve actually been able to provide historic tax relief.”

He said he’d worked with Republicans “to make sure we can actually provide historic property tax relief, tax relief for seniors and for working families.”

Vargas, who mentioned “working families” a lot, said he came from one—his parents were union members—and as a first-generation child of immigrants, was the first in his family to go to college.

Bacon said he’d been one of nine children growing up on a farm in Illinois and usually had two jobs as a teenager.

He segued from that into his position on college loan debt relief, which he opposes.

“I worked to pay off my college education,” he said, arguing that Biden doesn’t have the Constitutional power to eliminate $300 billion to $400 billion in debt through executive action.

“The Congress has the power of the purse. This has to go through Congress.”

Vargas said he’d used Pell Grants to get through college and had paid off his college loans. He differed, he said, with some aspects of Biden’s move. “I would have targeted the relief to lower-income families.”

And if elected, he’ll work on the related problem of college affordability, he said.

The two jousted on abortion—a loaded issue for this election, with the TV station noting in its intro to the debate that 3 in 5 women of ages 18 to 59 had said it was an important factor motivating them to vote this fall.

Bacon framed his position—supporting a 15-week limitation on abortions, with exceptions for rape and protecting the mother’s life—as the more moderate one, opposing it to Vargas’, which Bacon said amounts to “abortion on demand.”

Vargas defended his position—one, he said, on behalf of his wife and his young daughter.

“I want to make sure their rights are intact.”

And he implied it was the more conservative position because it limits “government overreach” on the issue.

He said Bacon had co-sponsored South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill, entitled the “Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act,” which would limit abortions to the first 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother.

Vargas termed this an “abortion ban,” one, he said, “that would punish women, and that would do everything they can to criminalize doctors.”

Bacon retorted that in the Graham bill, “basically there is no authorization to prosecute a lady.”

Graham’s bill, which he has introduced and reintroduced annually since 2013, has generally been considered unlikely to pass because Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has expressed hesitance to back it.

McConnell prefers, he has said, to let the states handle abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic Dobbs decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade.

Abortion was the only topic that caused the debate’s studio audience to react, with each man’s partisans applauding his respective stance.

Mastre noted the deviation from the debate’s rules when, in his wind-up, he thanked “our mostly well-behaved audience.”


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