Araceli Guzman takes a breath and knocks on a door near 32nd Ave. and Martha St. in Omaha’s Hanscom Park neighborhood. The morning sun reflects off her wide-brimmed hat and neon green vest as she waits for someone to walk to the door, but she’s met with silence. Then she knocks again.
Finally, the door opens. A bespectacled man greets Guzman and her co-canvasser, Maria Luz, who stands a couple inches behind Guzman. She’s clutching an iPad that displays a map with more than 50 addresses they’ll walk to today.
“Hi, we’re with the Heartland Workers Center,” Guzman says. “We’re walking around today to remind you of the upcoming election on November 8. Are you Omar?”
It’s a Monday morning in mid-September and the canvassers with the Heartland Workers Center are knocking on the doors of eligible voters to share information about the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election. HWC is a nonpartisan organization, so canvassers work to share information on how and when to vote, not who to vote for.
On this year’s ballot, Democratic state Sen. Tony Vargas is challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Don Bacon to represent Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a member of Congress, the elected representative will help make and pass federal laws for District 2 residents.
District 2 is the most racially and ethnically diverse of Nebraska’s three congressional districts. It’s made up of Omaha and Douglas County, parts of Sarpy County and Saunders County, the newest addition due to recent redistricting — the process of drawing new electoral district boundaries. The new map of District 2 moved parts of the southwestern Sarpy County, out into Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District and brought Saunders County in from the neighboring district.
The 2nd Congressional District has been a competitive ground for Republicans and Democrats for years. In the last several elections, the district’s precincts have split votes down party lines and emerged with a Republican congressman, except for the late Brad Ashford’s Democratic win in 2014 over former Rep. Lee Terry. In the 2020 presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden won the district’s votes for president while Republican Don Bacon won for Congress.
Voter registration data in the 2nd District show 38% of voters are registered Republican, 36% Democrat and 25% nonpartisan. Whether they live in North, South, West Omaha or Saunders County, many citizens in the 2nd District will base their vote on what Vargas and Bacon pledge to do to improve their communities.
Omar Gutierrez, the Hanscom Park resident standing before canvassers at his door, said though he’s not unhappy with Bacon’s time in Congress, he’d like to see if Vargas “offers something more.”
“I liked Vargas’s campaign in the primary, so I wanted to give him a closer look,” he said.
The son of Peruvian immigrants, state Sen. Vargas grew up in New York and began his career as a public school teacher. He’s served as an Omaha Public Schools Board member and in the nonprofit sector, and he touts endorsements from the Nebraska State Education Association. Vargas currently represents District 7, which covers downtown and southeast Omaha, in the Nebraska Legislature.
Rep. Bacon has represented Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District since 2017. His
endorsements for his fourth election run include the Omaha Police Officers Association and Gov. Pete Ricketts. Bacon grew up working on his family’s farm in Illinois, and after attending college served nearly 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. In the House, he currently serves on the armed services and the agricultural congressional committees.
Health Care, Jobs Top of Mind for North Omahans
About four miles north of Hanscom Park two days later, another trio of neon-vested Heartland Workers Center canvassers greet voters at their doors off North 24th Street.
“Some people don’t know there is an election — you might hear about it, but it goes in one ear and out the other,” said Y’Shall Davis, HWC’s North Omaha organizer. “That’s why it was so interesting finding the Heartland Workers Center because it was finally an organization that would teach you (about the election).”
Accessible health care is top of mind this election for Valora Mapp, a 70-year-old North Omaha resident who works with the elderly in their homes.
“People need it and depend on (it) to get their medicine,” Mapp said, including herself. She doesn’t drive anymore after having surgery on both her hands and developing arthritis from working in factories for almost 16 years.
Vargas voted to expand Medicaid in Nebraska as a state senator. He supports lowering the cost of prescription drugs and creating a public option for “Nebraskans of any age to buy into a Medicare-like health care plan at an affordable rate,” according to his campaign. Bacon has supported legislation to expand health care benefits to veterans exposed to hazardous toxins while on duty.
Mapp hasn’t felt North Omaha has been represented or listened to by Bacon during his time in office.
“We don’t need (people) like that to sucker us in, you know?” she said. “We need someone to speak and be honest — we want you to stick with your word.”
A couple blocks east of North 24th Street, Latoyce Wesley says she will vote, but she’s
undecided on who she’ll vote for. Wesley, who works in home care and childcare, wants to see more job opportunities in her neighborhood. Wesley said since the pandemic began she’s seen “a whole lot of people without jobs that I know normally had a job.”
As Nebraska state Senator, Vargas worked with Senators Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney to bring more than $300 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to North and South Omaha. That investment will go to businesses and job opportunities in both communities, which were hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19. Bacon voted against ARPA because money from previous pandemic relief packages had not yet been spent, according to his campaign.
Inflation Concerns in Saunders County
Drive about 25 miles west, cross the Platte River and enter Saunders County, home to the 22,787 newest residents of the 2nd Congressional District. Voter registration data shows 62% of voters are registered Republican, 19% are Democrats and 18% are nonpartisan.
It’s 5:30 on a Monday night in the eastern Saunders County town of Yutan, and Dixie Trost stands at the front of Creative Hair Works, her beauty salon, as she waits for her final client of the night to arrive for a trim.
While redistricting may be a new phenomenon to some in her county, it’s not for Trost. The business owner hosted Bacon at her home last spring in his efforts to meet the people of Saunders County who would be merged into his district. Trost hasn’t met Sen. Vargas, but she’s seen his ads on TV.
Trost is most concerned about rising inflation, an issue she says has resulted in some of her clients moving away from Nebraska or cutting back on salon visits to save money for family groceries.
“People don’t have the disposable income they used to,” Trost said. “We’re still kind of a necessity business, but I can see some people have to space out their appointments, and they’re thinking twice about getting chemical services done.”
The Nebraska Examiner reported Vargas has pledged to explore inflation solutions, including subsidies for child care costs and tax cuts that help the middle class. In Congress, Bacon voted against the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 because he said it would increase taxes for families and businesses. The law aims to curb inflation by lowering prescription drug prices and increasing taxes for high earners — adding a tax of at least 15% on large corporations that earn $1 billion or more.
Abortion May Sway Voters Across Party Lines
National election and congressional race analysis sites anticipate a close race for the 2nd Congressional District seat. According to Five Thirty-Eight, a website that tracks redistricting in states, Republicans have a slight advantage over Democrats on the new map, but the race remains competitive. The Cook Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan publication, changed the District 2 seat rating from “Likely Republican” to “Toss Up,” making it one of few in the country held by an incumbent Republican that’s anticipated to be up for grabs this November.
Independent women voters may contribute to the toss up as the overturn of Roe v. Wade may become a deciding factor for voters in District 2.
Bacon has co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment in Congress to criminalize and ban abortions nationwide, with no exceptions. In a debate against Vargas last week, Bacon said that that he would support U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal banning abortion after 15 weeks, reported the Nebraska Examiner.
Vargas has said he supports the right to an abortion and for people to make their own decisions when it comes to their reproductive health care.
This story originally published on The Reader’s print issue on October 1. Since then, Vargas and Bacon have challenged each other in two debates. Read reporting from the Nebraska Examiner on the first debate, which occurred Oct. 13, here. Watch the second debate, hosted by KETV on Oct. 16, here.
For information about both candidates and other races on the Nov. 8 ballot, check the League of Women Voters’ guide: