When former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg abandoned his plan to form a Super PAC to support the Democratic Party’s eventual nominee, it might have seemed like he had crumpled up and thrown out his pledge to help make Donald Trump a one-term president. After all, with a net worth north of $60 billion, Bloomberg could have continued to irritate his fellow New Yorker with a flood of online, radio, and television ads. Instead, he said he will give $18 million to the Democratic National Committee. That’s not insignificant. In fact, it offers Democrats the means to pursue a critical path to the White House.
Since federal regulations prohibit Super PACs from coordinating with campaigns, one benefit of this financial transfer is the ability of Bloomberg’s now-defunct campaign to share information with the Biden team. Bloomberg will also hand off his campaign offices to Democrats in six states that Trump won in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. DNC officials last month added Georgia and Texas to their list of twelve battleground targets, which also includes Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Virginia. Yet while DNC Chair Tom Perez insisted that the party “is making historic, early investments to build strong, multiple pathways for our eventual nominee to win,” there is an oversight on their Electoral College map: Nebraska’s second congressional district. Bloomberg’s donation, however, could help.
Nebraska allocates its five electoral votes by congressional district. The winner of the statewide popular vote receives two votes, while each of its three districts awards one. (Maine is the only other state that is run this way.) Voter data and recent election results indicate that Nebraska’s Second District (NE-2), which encompasses Omaha and its suburbs, is not as reliable a Republican district as it once was. In fact, The Cook Political Report classifies it as a toss-up alongside each of the states in which Democrats are taking over Bloomberg’s old offices. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, and Politico’s chief polling analyst all rate it the same.
NE-2 is like most metropolitan areas; it trends Democratic in its urban precincts and leans more Republican the further out you get from the city. The district includes all of Omaha’s Douglas County and part of Sarpy County to the south. Between the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms, Douglas County saw a drop of nearly 800 registered Republicans and a gain of 1,660 Democrats. Unaffiliated voters increased over the same period by more than 5,000. In more GOP-friendly Sarpy County, meanwhile, approximately 400 more Republicans were added to the rolls than Democrats; at the same time, independents increased by more than 2,000.
Under the Electoral College, these margins matter. In 2018, Republican Congressman Don Bacon successfully fought off Democratic challenger Kara Eastman by just under 5,000 votes. In 2016, Bacon won the House seat from a Democratic incumbent by fewer than 3,500 votes. The difference was about the same in 2008 when Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry NE-2 since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Democrats would be mistaken to feel discouraged by Eastman’s loss. A self-described progressive, she fully embraced Medicare for All, tuition-free college and increased firearm regulations. It was moderate Democrats who turned most red seats blue, with the few progressive pickups by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others having been pretty much settled upon the conclusion of their primaries.
With Joe Biden rather than Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket, moderate Democrats and independents in a tightly contested district like Omaha’s will surely feel more comfortable heading to the polls. Additionally, voter data from the district reveals that, in line with national trends, older voters are more reliable voters. Primary exit poll data from this election cycle shows a decisive edge for Biden among this demographic.
The modest Republican voter registration gains in Sarpy County are far from insurmountable. In fact, Douglas County’s Hispanic population presents an opportunity for Biden, not only because they tend to vote Democratic or because more Hispanics live in or around Omaha than anywhere else in the state, but also in light of how the counties in Nebraska that have a higher number of Hispanics have historically had lower turnout. The good news is, if the state fully embraces vote by mail to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis, there may be a boost in turnout among low-propensity voters, including young people and minorities. Additionally, those who have multiple jobs or a long commute and therefore aren’t able to set aside enough time to vote during a weekday could participate in greater numbers.
All in all, NE-2 is worth pursuing simply because of the value of its single electoral vote—and the data shows that it’s in reach.
To fully grasp the district’s importance, consider the potential election outcomes if only the six swing states in which Bloomberg is handing off his campaign offices vote either blue or red. There are three scenarios in which the Omaha metropolitan area would decide the entire race:
1) If the 2016 result holds except Biden wins Michigan and Pennsylvania, then Trump squeaks out a second term, 270-268; if NE-2 instead flips to blue, then the race is a tie.
2) If the 2016 result holds except Biden wins Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, then Trump wins by two electoral votes; if NE-2 instead flips to blue, then the race is a tie.
3) If the 2016 result holds except Biden wins Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin, then the race is a tie; if NE-2 flips to blue, then Biden reaches the 270 electoral vote threshold.
None of these six outcomes are far-fetched, yet the lack of attention thus far given to NE-2 seems to indicate that DNC leaders haven’t fully realized their possibility.
If they are going to invest in Texas and Georgia, where Trump won by more than 800,000 and 200,000 votes, respectively, then they should also make a play at Omaha, where Trump edged out Clinton by only 6,500 votes. Biden may not have the desire to open three campaign offices in Omaha, like Obama did in 2008, but using a portion of Bloomberg’s money for just one and some advertising there is not too much to ask. In the end, think of how grueling it would be to watch a second Trump inaugural address all because Biden couldn’t win a small district in Nebraska.
Some may argue that by forcing the president to defend the district, a more fired up, pro-Trump crowd would turn up at the polls, effectively blunting any Democratic gains. But this is the same fearful thinking that got the Clinton campaign into trouble in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest four years ago. In fact, filmmaker Michael Moore said during an MSNBC appearance in February that a campaign official explained to him why Michiganders couldn’t even buy yard signs to support the former secretary of state. “We decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea for Trump voters to see a lot of ‘Hillary’ signs on the road or on the street,’” Moore recalled being told,
“because it would remind them every day that they had to get out there and vote.”
Clinton, of course, lost Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. In a district as tantalizingly close as Nebraska’s second, a rigorous mobilizing campaign and a few million bucks could make all the difference. The Democrats should get to work there.