U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, with his wife, Celeste, at his side, talks to reporters just after a federal jury found him guilty. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Nebraska’s voters, and election officials, are about to enter new territory.
Because of the impending resignation of U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, voters in eastern Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District will be asked to vote in three elections in 2022 concerning the post Fortenberry is vacating. The three are the May primary, a special election in June and the general election in November.
It’s possible that the two perceived front-runners for the Republican and Democratic nominations, State Sen. Mike Flood for the GOP and State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks for the Democrats, could face off in both the special election and the general election.
We should know more in about 25 days, the probable deadline for the two parties to pick their candidates for the special election.
‘A rare thing’
The House of Representatives is unique in that vacancies, due to death or resignation, are filled via special elections, not appointments, said Randy Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Often, when a representative dies in office, the member’s spouse is appointed to fill out the term, Adkins said, providing an easy and, in some ways, logical choice.
But the current case in the 1st District, when a congressman resigns in the middle of an election year, is a whole new political critter.
“You just don’t have that many examples of something like this happening,” Adkins said. “It’s a rare thing.”
The executive committees of each major party — groups of about 20 party officials and leaders in each — will select the candidates for the special election.
If the special election is held, as is assumed, in the last week of June, the special election candidates would need to be picked 65 days before that date, under state law, to be printed on the ballot. That puts the pick before April 25. Gov. Pete Ricketts will pick the date of the special election, which must be held within 90 days of when the March 31 vacancy occurs.
J.L. Spray, a Lincoln attorney who serves as a Republican national committeeman, said he thinks the GOP executive committee will be picking someone who “has already stuck their neck out” to run.
The logical choice would be State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who was challenging Fortenberry already in the GOP primary and who has picked up the endorsements of two of the state’s Republican heavyweights, Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman. Flood said Sunday he will be seeking a spot on the special election ballot.
Spray said there would be some advantages for the GOP and the state if Flood, the presumed front-runner in the primary now that Fortenberry has dropped out, won a special election in June and was then seated in the House.
That would give Flood about six months more seniority in the House if he went on to be elected in November, Spray said. That, Spray said, would translate into better committee and office assignments.
Democrats have tough choice
It would also give Flood some power of incumbency as a higher profile congressman, rather than just a GOP candidate.
Besides Flood, those seeking the GOP nomination in the 1st Congressional District are Curtis Huffman of La Vista, Thireena Connely of Palmyra and John Glen Weaver of Omaha.
It gets a little stickier on the Democratic side.
Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln, has been the most visible and viable Democratic candidate so far. But she is being challenged by Jazari Zakaria of Lincoln, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student whose livestreams from Nebraska’s Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 got nearly 2 million views, according to The Daily Nebraskan, the UNL student news outlet.
Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said she will leave the decision up to the 25-member executive committee, which will likely meet in a week or two.
Kleeb said she assumes that both Pansing Brooks and Zakaria will want to be considered for the special election. It will be a strategic decision, she said.
Could boost voter registration
“We’re excited,” Kleeb said. Special elections energize voters and could increase voter registration, she said.
Kleeb added that the Fortenberry situation — he is resigning effective March 31 after being convicted Thursday of three felonies for lying to and misleading federal investigators — places a tinge of scandal on the GOP.
“That will resonate with our Democratic voters and some Republicans,” she said.
When asked if Fortenberry’s resignation benefits or hurts either party, Adkins said the impact will likely be minor in the 1st Congressional District, which hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1964.
The loss of an incumbent “creates a very narrow opening” for Democrats, the political scientist said. It would be different if this had happened in the 2nd Congressional District based in Omaha, which has swung back and forth, red and blue, in recent congressional and presidential elections.
Secretary of State Bob Evnen said he is not aware of any other instance in the state’s history in which a congressional representative resigned amid a criminal conviction, thus requiring a special election.
Fortenberry on primary ballot
Evnen said it is too late to remove Fortenberry’s name from the May primary ballot, but he assumed the nine-term congressman will communicate to his supporters that he has dropped out of the race, thus eliminating the possibility that he wins the GOP primary vote.
Logistically, Evnen said, holding three major elections in a year will be a challenge. But he said that election officials will be up to the task.
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