Nebraska: New lines, new indictment, same race ratings

In solid GOP district, indictment may not be enough to defeat Fortenberry

Redistricting didn’t make Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon’s Omaha-area seat any less competitive, but he should benefit from the national political climate next year, Gonzales writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Redistricting didn’t make Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon’s Omaha-area seat any less competitive, but he should benefit from the national political climate next year, Gonzales writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 22, 2021 at 5:30am

ANALYSIS — Rep. Don Bacon had the inside track on competing in the most interesting race in Nebraska until a fellow Republican, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, got indicted on three federal charges

Yet even though the Fortenberry headlines are remarkable, it’s unlikely Democrats would be able to wrest his 1st District from GOP hands. While Republicans could have made Bacon’s 2nd District safer through the redistricting process, the seat remains competitive and the third-term lawmaker should expect yet another serious race. 

Republicans need a net gain of just five seats for the House majority, and that task would be made easier by the reelection of their own incumbents, including Bacon. 

Nebraska’s 1st (Jeff Fortenberry, R)

The 1st District, which wraps around the Omaha area, isn’t the most Republican seat in the country, or even in the state, but it has a significant GOP bent. Under the new lines, President Donald Trump would have carried the seat over Joe Biden by 11 points, 54 percent to 43 percent, according to calculations by Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections. 

After winning reelection easily in 2020, Fortenberry’s prospects became decidedly less certain after he was indicted this week for allegedly lying to the FBI about campaign finance violations. While he had to step down from his committee assignments, some Nebraska sources say Fortenberry might be able to weather the storm politically considering most GOP primary voters would be more likely to trust him over the FBI. And in an era when the standard for holding office is lower than it once was, it’s unclear whether the indictment would be enough to defeat him. Of course, if he’s convicted, he’d face significant intraparty pressure to leave before the next election.

If Fortenberry decides not to run again, look for Matt Davison, a former University of Nebraska wide receiver who is now the Cornhuskers’ associate athletic director, to get some early attention. And a general election without Fortenberry would be uneventful. Initial rating: Solid Republican.

Nebraska’s 2nd (Don Bacon, R)

Bacon is one of just nine Republicans to represent a district that Biden carried in 2020. Nebraska Republicans could have tried to make his reelection easier by dividing up Omaha. But the threat of a potential Democratic filibuster in the state Legislature likely was a factor in Republicans leaving the partisan performance of the seat largely the same. Biden would have carried the redrawn seat 52 percent to 46 percent over Trump. 

Bacon has won close races in all three of his elections, and he is likely to face yet another serious challenge. He was first elected in 2016 by 1 point, reelected in 2018 by 2 points and won by a wider 5 points in 2020. Two Democrats, state Sen. Tony Vargas and 2020 Senate candidate Alisha Shelton, have already announced their candidacies, but Bacon looks likely to be helped by the broader political environment. Initial rating: Lean Republican.

Nebraska’s 3rd (Adrian Smith, R)

The expansive 3rd District, which includes most of the land area of Nebraska, got even larger because it needed to gain voters to meet its target after population shifts over the last decade. And it remains very Republican territory. Smith is the favorite to win the most boring race in the Cornhusker State. Without an indictment and running for reelection in a large, rural district Trump would have carried by 52 points (75 percent to 23 percent), the eighth-term congressman has a clear advantage. Initial rating: Solid Republican.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.