Democrat Tony Vargas aims to be Nebraska’s first Latino in Congress

In 2013, Vargas was appointed to the Omaha school board. He served three years before launching a run for the state Legislature. He won about 62% of the 2016 general election vote to became the first Latino elected to the Nebraska Legislature, which now has two Hispanics. All of Nebraska’s legislators are senators because it is unicameral and intended to be nonpartisan.

“Tony’s a good candidate because he’s been elected before. He has name ID and relationships in the community,” Rocha said. “A lot of times, we run candidates who are wealthy and have money because we are so worried about their fundraising potential, we forget to ask, ‘Do people know them?’ People know Tony.”

Matthew Zacher, Bacon’s campaign manager, touted the Republican congressman’s own ties to his constituents, saying the staff works hard to be sure he is regularly in the district.

While Nebraska’s Latino population grew 42% in the 2010-20 decade, just 7% of Nebraska’s eligible voters were Hispanic in 2022 and a smaller share turned out, about 14,000, according to the UnidosUS Hispanic Electorate Data Hub.

However, Nebraska saw a notable increase in Latino voter registration in 2022, when Vargas was on the ballot. That year, there were 37,000 registered Latino voters, up from 28,000 in 2020. Like with other groups, turnout among Latinos rises in presidential election years, with 8 in 10 or more Latino voters nationally usually turning out, said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, a UnidosUS Latino electorate expert.

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump improved his margin with Latino voters nationally and Bacon won the district where a good portion of the state’s Latinos live. But Biden won the district. Nationally, Biden won the greater share of Latino voters, 65% to Trump’s 32%.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., speaks to reporters on his way to a closed-door GOP caucus meeting at the Capitol
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., speaks to reporters on his way to a closed-door GOP caucus meeting at the Capitol on Jan. 10.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Vargas touts his legislative record of voting for more than $6 billion in tax relief over the past six years or so, relief that he says helped working- and middle-class families. “I bucked my party,” he said.

Vargas is hypercritical of his Republican opponent’s record regarding health care; Bacon voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, which lowered prescription drugs and health care premiums for some. “I see people in my community that are uninsured and can’t afford the current health care coverage,” Vargas said. But Bacon has stated that the “tax and spending law” was “reckless.”

Vargas also is reminding voters he was a lead co-sponsor of legislation that brought $230 million of federal American Rescue Plan money to Latino and Black communities for economic development. He touts that he was key in ensuring that the state steered money from the federal CHIPS and Science Act, which invests in the domestic semiconductor industry to counter China, to east Omaha, which is home to large Latino and Black communities.

Vargas criticized Bacon’s vote against the 2021 American Rescue Plan and against the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act. Zacher said Bacon voted against the spending because he knew it would be inflationary.

Abortion a top voter issue?

Abortion, though, may be the issue that determines which way the district swings. GOP Senate candidates in battleground states have been softening their abortion messaging as voters have been backing abortion rights and rejecting candidates and referendums restricting them.

Bacon has a strong anti-abortion voting record. He’s been willing to accept exceptions for rape and incest to reach a larger consensus on an anti-abortion bill.

“Even though Rep. Bacon is sort of viewed as a moderate, he is not a moderate when it comes to abortion,” said Damien Gilbert, a Democratic consultant whose Kansas-based firm, Prairie Progress, works with clients in Nebraska. Gilbert noted that Bacon was an original co-sponsor of the Life at Conception Act, introduced in the 2021-22 Congress.

The Nebraska Legislature passed a bill and the state’s governor signed it, banning abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy. A coalition of groups is trying to add to the November ballot a measure protecting abortion rights, a tactic that has been successful in other states.

Randall Adkins, a political science professor at University of Nebraska, said Bacon’s abortion position would bode better for him if he were running for a statewide position than for the district office, because the state is more conservative than the district.

The 2nd Congressional District is evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisans or independents, Adkins said. But there is a strong contingent of conservative Catholics in Omaha, he said.

On Vargas’ website, he promises to vote to codify Roe v. Wade and abortion protections. “I believe the decisions a woman makes for her body, and her family are deeply personal and politicians have no place telling her what she can and cannot do,” he states.

Zacher, though, said abortion was front of mind for voters in 2022, as well — yet Bacon prevailed over Vargas in that election.

Zacher said that Vargas is extreme on the issue and has not articulated any abortion restrictions.

But Gilbert said if Trump is at the top of the ticket for the GOP, voters will be reminded that he tipped the Supreme Court makeup to overturn Roe v Wade.

“Folks out there in rural places in the Midwest are not fans of being told what to do with the body,” Gilbert said.

Nebraska state Sen. Tony Vargas.
Nebraska state Sen. Tony Vargas touts his legislative record and his community ties as he campaigns for a congressional seat.Tony Vargas for Congress

Nationally, Bacon is seen as a deal-maker, and a relative moderate in the increasingly far-right GOP. He belongs to the House Problem Solvers Caucus. Trump sought a GOP challenger in 2022’s primary to run against Bacon.

But Bacon’s been targeted by the center-right Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, to take a stand against Trump. Vargas called Bacon an “enabler” for standing by Trump when he ran in 2016 and voting for Mike Johnson to be House speaker.

“I see that Don Bacon is continuing to enable the dysfunction and ineffectiveness in Congress. People are trying to figure out how to pay for their child care and actually have savings in their account and hopefully have some semblance of retirement in their life,” Vargas said. “That’s the reason why I’m trying to live out my dad’s legacy of what it looks like to have a member of Congress that actually fights on behalf of the middle class.”

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