Former Rep. Brad Ashford, whose 2014 win gave Democrats their only victory in a Nebraska House race since the 1994 GOP wave, died Tuesday at the age of 72 two months after he announced that he had brain cancer. Ashford previously served as a Democrat, Republican, and independent during his two stints in the state’s unicameral legislature, though he was never fully at home in either party during his long career in local and national politics.
Ashford, whose parents ran a prominent clothing store in downtown Omaha, got his start in politics in the 1970s as an intern for Republican Sen. Roman Hruska, and he made the first of what would be many party switches in 1982 to back Democrat Bob Kerrey’s successful bid for governor. Ashford, who had accepted an appointment by Kerrey to serve on the state’s Court of Industrial Relations, first considered running for the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District in 1986 against Republican Rep. Hal Daub, but he instead won a seat in the legislature that year.
Ashford initially still identified as a Democrat when he reached the officially nonpartisan state Senate, but news broke during his first months in office that he was considering rejoining the Republicans. He initially turned the GOP down only to finally make the jump in 1989, but he announced the very next day that he’d still serve on the finance committee for Kerrey’s ultimately victorious bid for the Senate. Ashford, who was a supporter of gun safety measures during his time in office, later gave up his place in the legislature to run for Congress only to badly lose the GOP primary 53-25 to Jon Christensen, who went on to narrowly unseat Democratic incumbent Peter Hoagland that fall.
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Ashford, though, was far from done with politics. Daub, who was mayor of Omaha by this point, appointed him in 1996 to the Omaha Housing Authority, a body Ashford would later chair. Ashford also initially supported Republican Chuck Hagel’s campaign for the Senate that same year, but he announced that he would no longer back him after Hagel adopted more conservative positions on abortion and gun safety issues. “I thought Chuck Hagel would bring the party to the center and away from the right-wing in those issues,” explained the former state senator, adding, “It’s very disappointing.”
Ashford, who remained active in local issues during his time out of office, returned to the legislature in 2007, and he retained his image as a moderate Republican. In late 2011, though, he announced that he was giving up his party affiliation altogether to become an independent, saying, “My political heroes always have been those people who work from the middle in a collaborative manner. Good ideas come from both sides.” The state senator sought a promotion in 2013 when he challenged Omaha’s Democratic mayor, Jim Suttle, but he took a distant fourth in the nonpartisan primary with 13%. (Republican Jean Stothert went on to unseat Suttle.)
However, Ashford had one more party switch ahead of him months later. Democrats were looking to target Rep. Lee Terry, who had only won 51-49 in 2012 even as Mitt Romney was carrying the 2nd District 53-46, and they successfully recruited Ashford after Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen dropped out. The newly-reminted Democrat had a very tough task ahead of him, especially as the political climate worsened for Team Blue, but Terry, who had declared during the 2013 government shutdown that he would keep taking his salary because “I've got a nice house and a kid in college,” proved to be an especially weak incumbent.
This contest attracted over $1 million from outside groups on each side, and Republicans sought to protect their endangered incumbent by portraying Ashford as weak on crime. The GOP ran ad after ad charging that Ashford supported a law that would allow a Black inmate named Nikko Jenkins to get out of jail early for murder, messaging that Democrats compared with George H.W. Bush's still-infamous Willie Horton ads. Jenkins, though, gave Terry the most unwanted endorsement imaginable, though, when he used a hearing to proclaim, “Hey you guys, vote for Lee Terry! Best Republican ever!” Ashford, who campaigned as a centrist, ultimately unseated Terry 49-46, giving Democrats a rare pickup on an overall awful night.
The new congressman immediately was one of the GOP’s top 2016 targets, but this time, he had a much tougher foe than Terry. Team Red nominated former Air Force Brig. General Don Bacon, who unseated Ashford 49-48 as Donald Trump was carrying the seat 48-46. Ashford sought a rematch in 2018, but while he once again had the support of national Democrats, nonprofit head Kara Eastman put up an unexpectedly tough fight in the primary. Eastman, who ran to Ashford’s left, ran ads saying that she was tired of hearing that Democrats don't stand for anything, and she upset him 52-48 before narrowly losing to Bacon.
Eastman ran again in 2020, and she easily won the nomination against the former congressman’s wife, Ann Ferlic Ashford. However, while Democrats hoped that Eastman could finish the job in the fall, Brad Ashford once again defied his party by endorsing Bacon and even starring in one of his commercials. Ashford’s seal of approval likely gave Bacon a boost, as he fended off Eastman 51-46 even as Joe Biden was winning the district 52-46.