Former congressman and wife both mulling Nebraska congressional bid

Former congressman and wife both mulling Nebraska congressional bid
© Greg Nash

Former Democratic congressman Brad Ashford wants Nebraska’s second district to once again send a “Rep. Ashford” to Washington after the 2018 midterms.

And he might not even be on the ballot.

The former congressman and his wife, Ann Ferlic Ashford, have been deliberating about which one of them should try to win back the Omaha-area seat ever since his November loss to now-Rep. Don Bacon (R). And while they haven’t made a final decision, one thing is clear. 

“One of us is running. And that you can take to the bank,” he said. 

Both Ashfords told The Hill that the family is mulling a bid from one of the spouses, with Ashford admitting that his wife is “very much leaning toward running.” The pair won’t make a final decisionabout who will enter the race until after Omaha’s mayoral election in early May. 

Ferlic Ashford says Bacon’s time in the office her husband lost in 2016 after serving only one term has motivated her to consider a run. 

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“What galvanizes me is this district elected a person who does not understand the district he represents, did not come from here and is still trying to learn on the job what this district is all about,” she said.  

Ferlic Ashford has levied similar attacks on Twitter, filling her Twitter feed with criticism of Bacon. 

Ashford said that that he and his wife share a commitment to the district and want its representative to follow a more centrist path. 

“We believe the country is going in absolutely the wrong direction, that we are not solving the problems in a pragmatic way: from the center," he said.  

"That’s where the solutions need to come from.” 

Ashford served two years in Congress, one of just two Democrats to defeat an incumbent in the GOP wave of the 2014 midterms.

Ashford outperformed expectations in the Republican-leaning district thanks in no small part to a major flub by his opponent, former Rep. Lee Terry, who created an attack ad-friendly sound bite when he said he wouldn’t give up his salary during the government shutdown because he needed to support his “nice house and a kid in college.” 

But Ashford’s triumph over Bacon didn’t last long. Ashford fell to Bacon by about 2 percentage points in November, with his 7,000 vote victory margin in the county that includes Omaha overwhelmed by running 12,000 votes behind Bacon in conservative Sarpy County.  

Both Ashfords aren’t shy about changing their party affiliations. Ashford joined the state legislature as a Republican, later becoming an independent and then a Democrat. And while his wife spent years as a Republican, she told the Omaha World-Herald that she decided to vote for Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFox News retracts Seth Rich conspiracy story Hillary Clinton 'outraged' by Manchester attack Oklahoma rep. launches long-shot bid for Oversight chair MORE in November’s presidential election and changed her registration at the end of 2016. 

Ferlic Ashford has been involved in the local business community for decades and an integral part of her husband’s campaigns.  

The seat is one of the top Democratic targets for 2018 as the party looks to flip red seats in well-educated districts like this one. But the GOP-leaning district will be a tough fight for whoever wins the Democratic nomination.

Overall, Cook Political Report ranks the district as “R+4,” which means that Republicans outperformed the GOP’s national average by 4 percentage points in the district in 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. 

The district is centered around Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska and home to a university of more than 15,000 students, two factors that pull the district left. Countering those Democratic votes is a healthy portion of suburban Sarpy County, a red-leaning area that includes Offutt Air Force Base. And Bacon, the incumbent, is a retired Air Force Brigadier General.

That leaves, on the whole, a fairly moderate district — albeit with some party strongholds that are key to get-out-the-vote efforts. 

Paul Landow, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who had worked in Democratic politics in the area, told The Hill that he believes the campaign will be hard for any Democrat, including either of the Ashfords, thanks to GOP opposition. 

“In a lean-Republican district adjacent to a major military institution, an attractive retired general with a good-looking family, well-educated, articulate. Frankly, how much better does it get than that?” he said.  

“It’s a toss-up district but I believe it’s a lean-Republican district, and with a profile like Bacon’s, I think he could be there about as long as he wants to be…Anything is possible but on a good day, it’s going to be really hard for a Democrat to win the seat.” 

Landow pointed to Sarpy County’s votes and its many residents who are either associated with the Air Force base or previously served.

When asked about the possibility of an Ashford candidacy, as well as the criticism of Bacon, Bacon spokesman Scott Peterson criticized Democrats for embracing "the failed candidates of the past" while Bacon "works tirelessly to improve military readiness, eliminate over burdensome regulations on small business and reduce taxes for middle-class families."
 
"In 2012, Ann Ashford lost a Nebraska Regent race and just five months ago Brad Ashford was fired by the voters," he added. 
 
"Regardless of which Ashford decides to run, either one would be another rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi and her failed policies.” 

But with President Trump facing low approval ratings and few legislative successes, a national mood favoring Democrats could boost liberal fortunes in Nebraska.  

There are already signs that the Nebraska seat could be more competitive for Democrats. The party’s candidates have made major improvements in red districts during recent special elections in Kansas and Georgia — although those closer races haven’t translated so far into flipped seats.

Ashford also notes that the suburban Atlanta district where Democrats fell just short of winning a crowded special election outright has a similar, well-educated voting base that mirrors the Nebraska district. 

Ferlic Ashford called the recent trends “extremely encouraging” to her as she weighs a bid.  

“What people are seeing is that they do have a voice—for so many years people felt that they did not have a voice and now, across the country, they are getting galvanized by realizing that if they get out, that is the most important voice that they have” she said. 

“I’m hoping that…the movements that are taking place translate themselves into long-term commitments to making sure their voices are heard and that the job is getting done the way they want to see it being done.” 

When asked about the same topic, Ashford agreed with his wife that Trump’s election offers an “opportunity” to win back the seat, particularly for moderate candidates. 

“What the Trump thing has done is it’s going to bring out people who realize what they’ve gotten themselves into by not voting, or voting for Trump as a Republican straight-ticket voter, where some of the issues you might care about—immigration, trade, women’s health—are in jeopardy,” Ashford said.

But Ashford warned Democrats that shifting the party too far to the left would hurt in districts like his, highlighting one major challenge the party faces as it juggles the progressive base’s energy with realities in more moderate districts.  

“Moving the party to the left doesn’t help the party win in Omaha,” he said. “The more left the party goes, the less likely Democrats will pick up the seat.”

“It’s more about unifying Democrats left, right and center, while attracting moderate Republicans and independents.”  

While both Ashfords seem resolute about a run, no final decisions have been made.  But the former congressman made a promise to The Hill.  

“I pledge to you: we will not be running against each other,” he said.