Blue Wave: “More a movement than a campaign” – Meet Kara Eastman, Nebraska’s insurgent progressive

Watching her mother die of cancer convinced Eastman to run as a Medicare-for-All candidate. She will be testing the idea that progressives can win even in red-leaning states.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

This is the third in the series of New Statesman America profiles of the “Blue Wave” of new, young, progressive candidates in this year’s midterm elections. You can find the others here.

In 2016, Kara Eastman’s mother was diagnosed with cancer for the fifth time. Despite her health insurance, she had been paying $800 a month for her prescription medication, and when she relapsed for the final time her doctor suggested she try another medicine that would cost her $2,500. She wasn’t able to afford it, and as a result Eastman’s mother was housebound for the final months of her life.

She died in late 2017, after Eastman had announced her candidacy as a Medicare-for-all progressive running for Congress in Nebraska, but before the 46-year-old social worker secured a surprise victory over the Democratic party favourite in the primary and formed one of the first ripples of this year’s progressive blue wave.

Eastman was motivated to run by her mother’s story. While politicians in Washington DC were talking about repealing or replacing the Affordable Care Act, which extended coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, stories like her mother’s and that of many people in her district didn’t seem to be reaching lawmakers.

“It seemed like perhaps we needed different kinds of voices in Congress, to be able to voice the concerns about healthcare for people like my mum,” Eastman tells me when we speak on the phone.

“I believe healthcare is a right in the wealthiest country in the world,” Eastman says. She says she is in favour of the expanded and improved Medicare for All Act, the 2018 bill introduced by Congressman Keith Ellison and backed by Bernie Sanders, which would guarantee universal healthcare in the US and virtually eliminate private medical insurance.

Eastman is running to represent Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, which is currently held by Don Bacon, a Republican. In the Democratic primary she ran against Brad Ashford, who had held the seat between 2014 and 2016 and who had the backing of the party leadership, including funding and support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“What we’re seeing across the country, and in particular here in Nebraska, is people excited about somebody who is running on a very pragmatic but progressive platform, speaking about things that resonate with them and their values. Someone who is willing to stand up and say: ‘I’m going to fight for things like healthcare, and debt-free education, and the environment,” Eastman says. She is advocating for stricter gun control, an increased minimum wage, free state university tuition for families earning under $125,000 a year and greater investment in green energy.

As with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old left-wing activist who is running for Congress in New York, Eastman’s victory was initially an upset for the Democratic party. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, who is running in a solidly Democratic seat, Eastman is running in a seat that the Cook Political Report classifies as “lean Republican”.

Some analysts are concerned that left-wing candidates running in red-leaning states risk alienating potential Democratic voters and handing victory to the Republicans, but Eastman argues that in her district voters are less interested in political labels than in leadership they can trust. She says that having worked as a social worker for two decades and headed a local healthy housing organization, the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, she has deep roots in the community and an intimate understanding of the problems local families face.

Medicare for All is also significantly more popular among the public than it is among politicians. Sanders’ healthcare proposals never stood a chance given the political climate in Washington, but one 2018 survey by the think-tank the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 59 per cent of people polled would support such a scheme.

The foundation also found that around three-quarters of those polled would support a model that would allow all Americans to sign up for the government-run Medicare or Medicaid systems but that would also allow people to keep their private plans, which is something Eastman says she would also consider.

Eastman can point to the success of her grassroots organising, too. She says her campaign knocked on 60,000 doors during the primaries. “And to come knock on doors for us, it’s hard to put yourself out there, to go and talk to people at their doors. It’s a bit intimidating. But I’m proud of the fact that people have grabbed onto the campaign and the messages we’re spreading,” she said. “It feels more like a movement than it does a campaign.”

Turnout in the Nebraska Democratic primaries was more than double that of the two previous primary elections, pointing to renewed political engagement and enthusiasm. (Democratic turn-out has risen in many states country-wide, something that ought to worry the Republicans.)

Following her primary victory, Eastman was added to the DCCC’s Red to Blue list, which gives support to promising Democrats running in target Republican seats. She is among 22 Red to Blue candidates also backed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which this year has endorsed 40 candidates and could play a powerful role should the Democrats flip Congress in November.

As Katrina vanden Heuvel writes in the Washington Post, “if Democrats pick up the 23 seats they need, progressives will be leading the way. And in a Democratic-majority Congress, CPC members are in line to chair a stunning 13 committees and 30 subcommittees”.

In the run-up to midterms, New Statesman America will be profiling a number of these candidates, introducing our readers to some of the races that matter most and giving them a sense of what a Democratic blue wave could look like.

Eastman is also joining an unprecedented number of women who are running in this year’s midterms: 235 so far, all but 52 of them Democrats. Like many women candidates, she says she has been frustrated at times by sexism on the campaign trail.

“There are lots of things that people say to me as a woman running, that I know they don’t say to men. There’s a lot of talk of what I wear, or how my hair is. People are very forthcoming with advice that I don’t think they necessarily give to men,” she says. “I also have a very matter-of-fact way of talking about things. People will just come up to me and say ‘You shouldn’t say this, you should say this.'”

It helps, however, that her mother was not only her inspiration for running for Congress, but also her role model. Eastman’s parents divorced when she was a baby, and her mother remained single.

“I watched my mom struggle to find good paying jobs. Struggle to find childcare. Struggle to collect child support payments from my father. And my mother was a fighter. Obviously when you have cancer five times in your lifetime, you have to be able to fight. She taught me to fight, and I believe that that's one of the things that's driving my passion,” she says.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.