In 2018, Democratic leaders are trying to recruit moderate candidates in swing districts. Primary voters, however, may have other ideas.
The potential problem for Democrats is that Eastman’s outspoken liberalism may turn off general-election voters in Nebraska’s 2nd District, which, while not ruby red, is still red. True, Barack Obama carried it 50 to 49 percent in 2008 — but that was 10 years ago and in an election where Democrats won the popular vote by 7 percentage points. Since then, Mitt Romney carried the district by 7 points (while losing nationally by 4 points), and Trump won it by 2 (while losing nationally by 2).2 All in all, the 2nd is 6 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric.3 Democrats currently lead the generic ballot by that same 6 points. If that remains true in November, that would theoretically translate to a tie ballgame in the 2nd District — the kind where small considerations, like a candidate’s appeal to the median voter, could tilt the outcome.
And Ashford would have probably bought Democrats a few extra percentage points. In 2016, he lost his re-election race in Nebraska’s 2nd District by 1 percentage point, running slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton. In 2014, he won the seat by 3 points in a year in which Democrats lost the national House popular vote by 6 points. While it’s possible that excitement for Eastman’s candidacy among the progressive grassroots will draw more Democrats out of the woodwork, she may have trouble winning over persuadable voters too. There’s plenty of evidence that candidates closer to the ideological poles do worse than moderate ones; it’s been demonstrated in political science research, and we saw real–life examples of it in 2010, when Republicans had a wave election of their own against an unpopular first-term president. Although Eastman could certainly still win in a strong Democratic year, we may also look back on her nomination as Democrats’ first “tea party” moment: a general-election opportunity squandered in the primary (or, at least, made more difficult).