Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R)
Nebraska 1st District
The eastern half of Nebraska, between the Missouri River and the 98th parallel, was laid out in relentless Midwestern mile-square grids and became some of America’s prime farmland during the 1880s. The Plains here have completed most of their gentle decline from the Rockies to sea level, and the land has contours just regular enough, and weather just favorable enough, to make farming economically viable. The area was settled by Yankee-descended farmers from the Midwest and immigrants from Germany and other countries. Traces of the immigrant heritage can still be found. Many people from Luxembourg, for example, settled along the Platte River in Butler County, where St. Mary’s Presentation Parish still has a statue of Our Lady of Luxembourg. Not far away are villages with names that recall other immigrant groups—Prague (Czechs), Malmo (Swedes), Aloys (Germans). Today, a new wave of immigrants is coming to eastern Nebraska, including Latinos from Mexico and the southwest United States, to work in the meatpacking factories in the area. Wakefield, in Dixon County, had the highest percentage increase in Hispanic population in the country in the 1990s at 8,700%, though the number is less impressive considering the Hispanic population grew from 4 to 348. But there are larger numbers in other towns, and the district’s demographic face is changing.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 1st Congressional District of Nebraska comprises 22 full counties and parts of two others in an easternmost slice of the state. It surrounds but does not take in Omaha and most of its suburbs, which are in the 2nd District. It’s anchored by Lincoln, the state capital and home of the beloved University of Nebraska Huskers football team. Lincoln has been growing rapidly. It is affluent, with above-national-average incomes and unemployment among the lowest in the United States. Underway east of downtown Lincoln is the $238 million Antelope Valley urban renewal project, which is expected to spur further economic development. In the smaller towns, there are significant numbers of farm equipment and meatpacking factories. Population growth has been robust around Schuyler, Norfolk, and Dakota City. Politically, Lincoln is fond of moderate Democrats but is still on balance Republican in national contests. The district voted 63% for George W. Bush in 2004 and 54% for John McCain in 2008.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R)
Elected: 2004, 3rd term.
Born: Dec. 27, 1960, Baton Rouge, LA .
Education: LA St. U., 1982, Franciscan U. of Steubenville, M.A. 1985, Georgetown U., M.P.P. 1986.
Family: Married (Celeste); 5 children.
Elected office: Lincoln City Cncl., 1997-2001.
Professional Career: Staffer, U.S. House Comm. on Ag., 1986; Research assoc., Gulf South Research Inst., 1987-89; Asst. dir., Baton Rouge Downtown Dev. District, 1989-92; Sales rep., Sandhills Publishing, 1995-2004.
The congressman from the 1st District is Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican elected in 2004. Fortenberry grew up in Baton Rouge, La., where his father was a life insurance salesman and his mother worked as a 4-H Club extension agent. Fortenberry got the political bug early as a page to a Democratic state senator, but switched to the Republican Party after he graduated from Louisiana State University. He earned one master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and then another one in public policy from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (For a time, he studied for the priesthood but changed his mind.) In 1995, the congressman moved to Nebraska to take a public relations position with Sandhills Publishing, a publisher of trade magazines for the trucking, aircraft, and computer industries. He later got into the sales end of the business. Fortenberry’s first foray into local politics came in 1997, when he won a seat on the Lincoln City Council. He served for four years, focusing on neighborhood concerns and on increasing the police force.
|Jeff Fortenberry (R)||184,923||(70%)||($341,030)|
|Max Yashirin (D)||77,897||(30%)||($24,232)|
|Jeff Fortenberry (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (58%), 2004 (54%)
When U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, who was first elected in 1978, announced he would not run again in 2004, three candidates mounted competitive campaigns for the Republican nomination: Fortenberry; Curt Bromm, the speaker of the state’s unicameral Legislature; and Greg Ruehle, a former executive vice president of the Nebraska Cattlemen Association. Bromm, a moderate who was endorsed by Bereuter, began as the front-runner. But he quickly lost momentum after a barrage of negative television ads financed by the Club for Growth, a national anti-tax group that supported Ruehle. Fortenberry, a social conservative, drew criticism from his opponents as a single-issue candidate, but his superior grassroots operation and fundraising carried him to victory. He won just seven of the 24 counties, but in Lincoln’s Lancaster County, which cast 43% of the votes, he got 52% to 29% for Bromm and 13% for Ruehle. The vote in the rest of the district was closer: 29% for Fortenberry, 36% for Bromm and 27% for Ruehle. Overall, Fortenberry won with 39% of the vote, to 33% for Bromm and 21% for Ruehle.
In November, Fortenberry faced state Sen. Matt Connealy, a farmer from Decatur who sought to exploit Republican divisions—Bromm refused to endorse Fortenberry after the primary—and who characterized Fortenberry as a stranger to Nebraska farm issues, a potent charge in a state where one in four jobs is connected to agriculture. “If you want a guy in a slick suit with slick answers, I’m probably not your guy,” Connealy said. Fortenberry responded by promising to improve trade policies for farmers and to support ethanol development. His main message, however, focused on socially-conservative themes: opposition to abortion, support of capital punishment, and a ban on same-sex marriage. Connealy gained traction briefly by hammering his opponent’s attendance record as a city councilman but lost ground when Fortenberry responded with an ad explaining that the absences were connected to his infant daughter’s open-heart surgery. Fortenberry won 54%-43%, losing only two American Indian reservation counties. In Lancaster County, which cast 46% of the votes, he won by only 49%-47%.
In the House, Fortenberry is a backbencher but has gained a reputation as a brainy policy expert. More conservative than Bereuter, Fortenberry voted against expanded embryonic-stem-cell research, saying that using discarded human embryos from in vitro fertilization “poses profound ethical dilemmas.” But he has been a centrist on some economic issues. Teaming with Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, he supported renewable energy sources and pushed for an overhaul of subsidy payments in the 2008 farm bill. In November 2007, he was the only one of the three House Republicans from Nebraska to vote to override President Bush’s veto of the appropriations bill for labor, education, and health and human services. He also was part of a swing group of Republicans who unsuccessfully sought middle ground that year with Democrats on a children’s health insurance bill. On the International Relations Committee, he supported Bush on the war in Iraq, won House approval of an increase in visas for Iraqi translators, and worked on the deal to promote nuclear cooperation with India.
In Fortenberry’s first re-election campaign, former Democratic Lt. Gov. Maxine Moul cited the need for benchmarks in Iraq. Although her fundraising was competitive, Moul’s campaign attack ads did not catch fire in the district, which has not elected a Democrat since 1964. Fortenberry won 58%-42%, including 53% of the vote in Lancaster County. Moul won only in Burt County, where she was born and raised. In 2008, Fortenberry had an even easier ride to reelection with 70% of the vote against Iraq War veteran Max Yashirin. Fortenberry was an early supporter of John McCain in the presidential contest.