After Nebraska, Democrats’ Health Care Battles Extend to Texas Runoffs

by Leah Askarinam May 22, 2018 · 9:27 AM EDT

Last week’s primary results gave progressives a shot of hope in regaining some momentum in the Democratic civil war. In Nebraska’s 2nd District, an advocate for Medicare for All defeated a former congressman running as a moderate in a district that President Donald Trump narrowly carried in 2016. But a broader look around the country has yet to reveal substantial evidence that progressive candidates have the upperhand over more moderate ones in competitive Democratic primaries, though Tuesday’s results in Texas could clarify the direction of the Democratic Party.

Former Nebraska Rep. Brad Ashford, who was vying to reclaim the seat he lost last cycle, lost this year’s Democratic primary to nonprofit executive Kara Eastman, whose campaign focused on Medicare for All and free college for families that earn under $125,000 per year. Eastman’s victory marked the second high-profile instance of the 2018 cycle where progressives across the country felt one of their own won a proxy war, following Laura Moser’s progression into the runoff in Texas’s 7th District. 

Ashford came to the primary with a significant name identification and cash on hand advantage, making Eastman’s victory even more surprising. Ashford’s spending on television ads nearly quadrupled Eastman’s, and Ashford’s internal polling showed the former congressman with a significant lead, although it also showed potential for Eastman to pick off undecided voters. 

But of course the race is more complicated than the progressive wing outflanking the moderates. 

It’s true that a progressive candidate defeated a more moderate one, but that’s not how a Democrat aligned with the Eastman campaign framed the race. Her ideological positioning might not have been as important as being a newcomer who was clear about where she stood on the issues against a former congressman with baggage from serving in Washington. 

Ashford ran a campaign that focused on bipartisanship and getting things done in DC. But a Democrat aligned with Ashford’s campaign admitted after the race that those voters wanted to send a fresh face to Congress, which made a 46-year-old woman more appealing than a 68-year-old former congressman.  

Before Nebraska’s primary, Texas was pronounced the original home of the 2018 Democratic civil war when the DCCC, arguing that a past article disparaging Texas would disqualify her in a general election, intervened against Laura Moser, a self-described member of “The Resistance” who supports Medicare For All. She now faces Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in Tuesday’s primary runoff in the Houston area. 

The original 7th District race on March 6 was one of at least 20 Democratic primaries where at least one candidate openly supported Medicare for All or single-payer (according to their campaign websites) and received at least 10 percent of the vote. A candidate who supported single-payer health care or Medicare for All was the top vote getter in 11 of the 25 Democratic primaries overall. In the 25th District, both of the most prominent candidates supported single-payer, preventing a clear contrast of which policy was more appealing. 

Plus, of the successful candidates, it’s unclear if progressive values were the factor that pushed them over the edge. It’s possible that Democratic voters are first looking to coalesce around women to be their nominees. Nine of the 11 more progressive health care candidates were women, and seven of those were the only woman running a credible campaign in their district.

Of course, there were also factors at play beyond gender or progressive values. For example, Texas 16th Democrat Veronica Escobar, a supporter of single-payer, defeated a candidate who was criticized for being too close to the Republican Party. 

Two races on Tuesday feature two candidates with differing public views on single-payer. The most high-profile divide will be Texas’ 7th District between Fletcher, who hasn’t said she supports single-payer, against Moser. And in the Texas’ 21st District, Mary Street Wilson also said she supports Medicare for All andfaces Joseph Kopser, who told Politico on Saturday that he’d vote for a single-payer bill but doesn’t mention the bill or Medicare for All on his campaign website. 

Nebraska’s results could signal energy among progressives nationally. But ideology could also be a secondary motivator for voters looking to support women. Or, even tertiary to Democrats wanting someone younger than the former congressman or someone who hasn’t served in an unpopular Congress. The most likely answer is that each of those three factors contributed to Eastman’s win. 

There’s undeniably a divide in the Democratic Party, but it’s not evident at this point that progressives will run away with the primary nominations across the country.