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Omaha World-Herald June 12, 2017

Super PAC ad campaign touts Bacon’s effort to keep Offutt open – but it’s not in danger of closing

By Joseph Morton

WASHINGTON — The image is a uniformed Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., standing before a massive American flag, the words underneath touting the retired Air Force brigadier general’s fight to “keep Offutt Air Force Base open.”

Nebraskans who spot the online campaign ad might well wonder if they missed news of a major push to close Offutt. The military installation south of Omaha serves as a crucial economic driver for the area.

Truth is, there’s no imminent threat of Offutt closing. In fact, the military is investing in the base, including the construction of a new $1.2 billion U.S. Strategic Command headquarters.

So are the ads misleading?

They were produced by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC devoted to electing Republican congressional candidates. Bacon is a freshman lawmaker who narrowly won his seat in November.

In response to World-Herald inquiries, the super PAC provided a statement that did not identify any specific proposals to shutter Offutt.

Rather, the statement from the group’s spokeswoman, Courtney Alexander, referred generally to congressional debates over defense funding levels. It indicated that the ad highlights Bacon’s commitment to protect Offutt, the jobs the base creates and a strong national defense.

“It serves as a stark contrast to Democrats’ opposition, led by Nancy Pelosi, to strengthen our military, putting our country, troops, and bases at risk,” according to the statement.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that the group was jumping into this campaign cycle early to defend the Republican House majority in next year’s midterms.

The Congressional Leadership Fund plan includes spending $30,000 a month per district on online ads like the ones supporting Bacon.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has its own online ad campaigns going — including spots that attack Bacon for his support of the Republican health care legislation.

In an interview, Bacon stressed that he had nothing to do with the Offutt-related ad campaign. He and his campaign are legally barred from any coordination with the super PAC.

But he also defended talk of his fight to keep Offutt “open” as truthful. He suggested no other elected official is as familiar with the base, given that he served there multiple times.

That includes a stint as base commander. When he took over in 2011, he said, he reviewed a report on proposed base closings that had been compiled a couple of years earlier. Offutt had avoided being proposed for elimination — but just barely. It was at the top of the list to be cut if the military decided to go deeper, he said.

“It just shows you how close we were roughly seven, eight years ago of getting the base cut,” Bacon said.

Offutt’s biggest weakness, he said, is that it has a single runway, which means it’s impossible to conduct serious work on the runway and still have flying operations. That’s why the Air Force favors bases with dual runways, he said.

Bacon conceded that Offutt’s future prospects have since been bolstered by the new StratCom headquarters. It’s unlikely such an expensive new facility would be mothballed soon.

Still, StratCom alone doesn’t mean the entire base is safe. The U.S. Southern Command, for example, is not attached to a specific active base. Bacon said it’s possible that the military could take a similar approach with StratCom and shut down most other operations at Offutt.

“The real risk is that we could lose the flying mission potentially,” he said. “That’s the biggest part of our base.”

He said his work on behalf of Offutt includes a laundry list of budget requests that include Offutt runway upgrades, modifications to the RC-135s, a new simulator building and gate security improvements.

“I am doing the best I know how to do anyway for advocating at Offutt,” he said.

He added that he worked with local business leaders even before he was elected on how they could pitch the base to the Air Force, focusing on the strength of community support.

Offutt’s role as an economic engine has long made its protection a potent campaign issue. And recent years have seen renewed efforts by local leaders to secure the base’s future.

Members of the Nebraska congressional delegation, including the man Bacon defeated last year, Democrat Brad Ashford, repeatedly highlighted their successful efforts to get millions of dollars in funding to improve Offutt’s single, crumbling runway.

Along the way they and other Nebraska officials warned that those kinds of infrastructure issues at Offutt had to be addressed to prevent the base from losing missions.

John Pike, a military analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, noted that there are indications a new attempt at base closings is coming. Still, he said it’s hard to see how Offutt would end up on the chopping block at this point, citing that expensive new StratCom headquarters.

“No one is entirely safe when the legislature is in session,” Pike said, “but many other places would have more to worry about than Offutt.”

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