LINCOLN, Neb. – When he seeks office again in 2022, U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska will essentially face two opponents: a progressive Democrat with a lot of support in the state’s second-largest city, and a federal prosecutor in California who has accused him of lying to the FBI.
The nine-term Republican has always coasted to reelection in his GOP stronghold district, an expanse of rolling farmland and small towns with left-leaning Lincoln in the middle. Now, he’s running with a federal indictment over his head and the prospect of a conviction that could send him to prison and cost him benefits he receives in office.
He's also likely to face state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a Democrat with a strong fundraising background who is well-known in Lincoln. Pansing Brooks announced her candidacy for Congress on Monday, pitching herself as a results-focused candidate who would push for better phone and internet service in rural areas and lower prescription drug costs. She's the only Democratic candidate to announce.
“No question, it's going to be a tough race, but I'm just going to do the best I can,” Pansing Brooks said in an interview. “I have an ability to make friends on all sides of the aisle.”
Her campaign is still a long shot, based on both history and Republican dominance in the district. Other Democrats who showed promise at the outset of their campaigns have ended up losing to Fortenberry. Still, prominent Democrats are hopeful that, with the indictment and a newly drawn congressional district, they might have a chance to unseat Fortenberry.
“He’s been wounded by the scandal, and I think Patty will have a very well-funded, top-drawer campaign,” said Dennis Crawford, a Lincoln attorney who challenged Fortenberry unsuccessfully in 2014. “It’s still a heavy lift, and would require an upset, but the chance is still there.”
Crawford said the district is difficult for Democrats because so much of it is rural and Republican-leaning, which offsets the party’s advantage in Lincoln. He said that also made it tough to raise money, because the district is widely seen as unwinnable.
Pansing Brooks won her legislative seat twice in a heavily Democratic Lincoln district, but is ineligible to run again because of term limits. She pointed to her leadership experience in several major fundraising initiatives, including a $9.6 million push to redevelop Lincoln's Centennial Mall, a $6 million Union Plaza fundraiser in the city and a successful $250 million Lincoln Public Schools bond issue.
Fortenberry has more than $897,000 in cash on hand for his campaign, according to the Federal Elections Commission, and stepped up his fundraising around the time prosecutors announced charges against him.
The district remained GOP-friendly after lawmakers redrew the state's political boundaries earlier this year, but less so with the addition of Democratic-leaning areas of Bellevue, an Omaha suburb. The district also lost Republican-heavy Saunders County to the much more competitive 2nd Congressional District.
Fortenberry also faces the prospect that more information about his case will trickle out during the campaign, giving his opponents ammunition to use against him. His trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles likely won't take place until February at the earliest.
Fortenberry was accused last month of lying to the FBI and concealing information from agents about an investigation into illegal campaign donations from a Nigerian billionaire. He has pleaded not guilty.
Despite the charges, many prominent Nebraska Republicans have publicly maintained their support. Gov. Pete Ricketts defended Fortenberry on Monday as “a man of integrity" and said he found the allegations difficult to believe, but acknowledged that it could make it tougher for the congressman to win reelection.
“I think it does present an additional challenge for Congressman Fortenberry, but again, he's got to go through this process with regard to the courts,” Ricketts said.
In a statement, Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb praised Pansing Brooks for her work in the Legislature to help vulnerable children and said she will “restore dignity to the office and bring her full heart to get work done for the people of Nebraska.”
Pansing Brooks has been a vocal champion of LGBT rights, but also worked with conservatives on legislation aimed at sex trafficking and Native American issues. She kicked off her campaign Monday with a tour of the district, where she planned to speak about the need to upgrade bridges and roads. She said most Nebraskans “don't live in a partisan prism,” and want to see legislation that improves their lives.
“Things have become so partisan, and I think that’s where Patty will really have an advantage,” said Sen. John McCollister, a Republican who has frequently clashed with his party and who appeared in Pansing Brooks' campaign announcement video. “She’s able to bridge the gaps like nobody I know. And so if it can be done, Patty Pansing Brooks will make it happen.”
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