To be honest, this race has bothered me for a long time, and I've foolishly kept my mouth shut under the assumption that my concerns were certain to be addressed in due time. Well, "due time" came and passed with Labor Day, and I've got to admit to continued frustration at the Moul campaign's strategy. Maxine Moul is as strong a challenger to Jeff Fortenberry as Nebraska Democrats could have asked this election year, but I fear all those credentials and all the humanity Moul brings to the ballot aren't necessarily going to add up to a damn thing come Election Day.
I may be way off-base in my understanding of this race. There may be some brilliant strategy at the heart of Moul's campaign that simply hasn't become evident to interested observers like myself. God, I hope so. But, from what I've seen and heard, I can't help likening this effort to the Nebraska Cornhusker football team's gameplan against the USC Trojans two weeks ago. In short, it has seemed like a campaign with the goal of remaining competitive, sticking to the ground game - raising money, raising money, raising money, and talking up Maxine rather than taking some real risks, going on the offensive, and playing to win on November 7th.
With a candidate of Moul's caliber and her connections in communities across the state, I just can't imagine how this came to be. Yet, having watched this campaign and waited for it to come alive, I can't help making such a bleak assessment - even while holding out hope for its immediate future if things change in a hurry.
If I were to characterize the campaign's one fundamental and potentially fatal flaw, it would be the gross underestimation of Jeff Fortenberry that I've found quite common amongst Nebraska Democrats - who seemingly fail to grasp that Fortenberry may vote like a lightweight in Congress but, on the campaign trail, he's a heavyweight contender. He was underestimated by 2004 nominee Matt Connealy's campaign, as they actually rooted for Fortenberry over Curt Bromm in the Republican primary. He continues to be underestimated by damn near every Democrat I talk to, who look to Fortenberry's voting record and see how out of step it is with Nebraska's interests, then assume that alone is going to be enough to beat him.
The hell it will - not when the case hasn't even been made to voters why Fortenberry is wrong for the First District.
Fortenberry votes like your typical Republican stooge. Of Nebraska's "Timid Trio" in Congress - comprised of rubber stamps Fortenberry, Lee Terry, and Tom Osborne - Fortenberry's record of reflexively voting the party line is the worst and, in his two years in Congress, he's tied himself most clearly to the culture of corruption that holds Congress in its grip, perverting our democracy to its core.
Fortenberry has taken and returned money from the same Club for Growth that has become such an issue in this year's Third District race. He's taken and had to dispose of $20,000 from now-resigned House kingpin Tom DeLay, with whom he swore near-total allegiance with his votes. He also dumped $4,000 he'd taken from convicted Congressman Duke Cunningham's PAC, with Cunnigham now sitting in federal prison for bribery. At least another $17,000 also sits in Fortenberry's coffers from Congressman Jerry Lewis, who remains under investigation for influence-peddling from his chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee. Meanwhile, Fortenberry's top campaign contributor - Nelnet Inc. - stands accused of bilking the federal government and American taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars by manipulating programs providing low-interest student loans.
None of this changes the simple fact, however, that Fortenberry is a candidate of obvious intelligence who is probably the smoothest operator in Nebraska's Congressional delegation - including Senators Chuck Hagel and Ben Nelson. The guy is a terrible representative but a great politician. It's no surprise at all that the political writer for the Sioux City Journal should declare Fortenberry the "most polished-speaking lawmaker" he'd covered.
In other words, there are points on which Fortenberry might be vulnerable, but only if the Moul campaign had a plan to put him on the defensive. Some efforts were made to draw attention to Fortenberry's slavery to special interests this summer, particularly big oil companies reaping record-breaking profits, but no comprehensive theme or narrative emerged by which Moul could establish a message and contrast her vision in the minds of voters. So, with five weeks left in the race, Moul is essentially starting from a blank slate. Maybe that's enough time to make the case for Moul while challenging Fortenberry's record and cutting into his default support as the incumbent and the Republican in a majority-Republican district, but it's cutting it damn close.
Tonight's debate in Norfolk between Moul and Fortenberry, one of only two to which Fortenberry would agree, will be very telling as to what course this race will follow over the remaining weeks of the campaign. As of now, the match-up has garnered some attention nationally from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - recently designating it a newly competitive "emerging race" - while Moul also received high-profile endorsements from the centrist Democratic Blue Dog Coaltion and the woman-focused interest group EMILY'S List.
Moul is a strong enough candidate that she deserves such recognition, but - if it's to do anything more than help Democratic turn-out to favor Nelson's reelection while forcing the Republican Party to expend minimal resources that would have otherwise been spent elsewhere - it's well past time that Moul's campaign starts making some headlines and taking Fortenberry to task.
Of course, looking at the Moul campaign's website, you can see they have amped up their criticism recently, calling Fortenberry out for the failures of the Do-Nothing Republican Congress, his vague stance on the important but somewhat over-hyped issue of the national sales tax, and - just yesterday - his ties to Republican House leaders Dennis Hastert and John Boehner, who are alleged to have known for months, if not years, of Florida Republican Mark Foley's predatory sexual exploitation of teenaged pages working on Capitol Hill without taking any action to end it. Fortenberry has received a combined $30,000 from Hastert and Boehner, both of whom also visited Nebraska to campaign and fundraise on Fortenberry's behalf while engaging in a coverup to prevent Foley's outrageous and illegal conduct from jeopardizing their stranglehold on power. It's also undoubtedly worth noting that Foley himself gave $315,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee since 2004 (1,2) , a figure sure to have bought him some friends - and perhaps even their shameful silence.
One hopes that the Moul campaign will keep hammering away at these sorts of issues and that the Nebraska press might finally start giving this race the coverage it deserves. Taking a look at Fortenberry's own newly-overhauled website, he's already attempted to discredit Moul by digging up articles almost 15 years old, from her day's as Lt. Governor before Fortenberry had even set foot in Nebraska.
He's ready. She's ready. I'm ready. The people of the First District are ready for this race to begin in earnest, with a spirited debate tonight that too few will have the opportunity to see or hear but plenty should read about. Let's keep it clean, sure (at least, relative to the Senate race). But, finally - at long last - let's get ready to rumble.