Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jeff Fortenberry: Mark These Words

by Kyle Michaelis
One of the main reasons I haven't done suitable recaps of the 2006 Congressional races in Nebraska is because I haven't had the stomach to say what needed to be said about the poorly-conceived campaign of 1st District Democratic challenger Maxine Moul. After my brush with retirement, it's time to cut loose.

Moul is a fine woman, a great Nebraskan, and I have no doubt she would have been a true asset to her state and her nation in Congress. That said, for all Moul's impressive qualifications and credentials, there was a spark missing from her campaign that led me to question in early October whether she was even in the race to win...or just to mobilize the Democratic base on Sen. Ben Nelson's behalf. That says a lot, although it pains me to make such suggestion now as much as it ever did.

In that post, I focused on the need to define incumbent Rep. Jeff Fortenberry as out-of-touch with the needs and interests of First District voters. But, as Election Day neared, what was truly lacking from Moul's message was the Nebraska-rooted, local flavor that should have been her greatest, most natural asset.

Voters did not know Moul when they cast their ballot. Hers was a cookie-cutter, paint-by-numbers, Democratic campaign in which both candidates were nothing more than stand-ins for dueling national political themes. In New York, Connecticut, even Pennsylvania, such may have had the makings of a winning campaign in the current political climate.....BUT NOT IN NEBRASKA, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Of course, I don't envy the choices Moul and her campaign had to make. On both immigration and the war in Iraq, it seemed there were pressures to adopt ill-fitting messages to fall in line with and not be a liability to Sen. Nelson's reelection. That robbed Moul of two powerful issues on which she might have really defined herself, perhaps injecting her campaign with the passion and the personality it generally seemed to lack.

Taking the positions she did within the confines I perceived, Moul's only chance at victory would have been running as Ben Nelson in a dress, with Nelson completely embracing Moul's campaign as his own. But, a) that was never going to happen and b) that would have been a terrible betrayal of the principles, the intelligence, and the independence that made Moul such an attractive candidate to begin with.

So, Moul lost. That doesn't bother me. Fortenberry was never going to be easy to defeat. As a first-termer in a do-nothing Congress, his record was thin but also generally inoffensive. Still, with Moul's margin of defeat after the resources she'd amassed and the prevailing mood of the general public, it's hard not to consider her campaign a flop, although I have nothing but respect and affection for the candidate herself.

That leaves us with at least another two years of Congressman Fortenberry, and I won't deny that it could be a whole lot more. Already laying the groundwork for such a possibility, Monday's Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
Fortenberry says he’s not deterred or discouraged by his sudden bump from the House majority into the minority in his second term.

“I’ve been trying to build relationships (across party lines) since I’ve been there,” he says. “Relationships build trust, and trust leads to common ground”....

The 1st District Republican congressman won his second term earlier this month by the largest margin in Nebraska’s three House races despite being matched against the best-known Democratic opponent.

Fortenberry defeated former Lt. Gov. Maxine Moul by 18 percentage points, winning 23 of 24 counties, all but Burt....

With members of the House considered to be most vulnerable in their first bid for re-election, Fortenberry’s big win more firmly established him politically. His predecessor, Doug Bereuter, served 13 terms....

While he may have won by a comfortable margin, Fortenberry says: “We had to fight for it considering the national environment.”

What was the message voters delivered in turning out Republican incumbents and establishing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate?

“I think the American people have told us they want inspired leadership independent of political party”...Fortenberry says.

If Fortenberry means what he says in the above article and truly works in the bipartisan fashion that Nebraska voters expect, demonstrating the true leadership and independence that Fortenberry failed to establish in his first term, he's going to be well-positioned to win future elections. But, if he hasn't learned such lessons and continues to serve his party before the people who elected him, the right Democratic candidate running a strong campaign is going to give Fortenberry a very hard time in 2008.

The people want "inspired leadership independent of political party." We hear you, Mr. Fortenberry, and we will be watching very closely to see that you've heard us.


Anonymous Ryan Anderson said...


Unfortunately, this had to be said. Perhaps the saddest part of this whole campaign is that it leaves Fortenberry significantly stronger than he would've been if he had run unopposed. Now he gets to brag about defeating two well-qualified and highly touted Democratic candidates with convincing margins of victory. I fear that he is perfectly positioned for a statewide race if he desires one.

But the good news is that now we know what works and what doesn't. The even better news is that we now have at least two terrific models to choose from: Kleeb's "new Western strategy" (as "The Hill" newsmagazine dubbed it this summer) and Esch's grassroots revolution. It's time to start moving forward. Let's not spend another dime, another second nor waste another terrific candidate on outdated and ill-suited strategy.

Anonymous Jon Rehm said...

This comment might be construed as terribly superficial,but Moul just didn't/doesn't have the pizzaz or glamour of a Scott Kleeb. She didn't/doesn't have a lot of appeal outside a core of Democratic activists. True Coleen Seng ain't exactly a movie star either, but Lincoln municipal politics are a whole other ball of wax. Maybe they could have been more aggresive in their free media strategy. But it doesn't matter how many press conferences you have if no one is excited about your campaign. Maxine could have done what Kyle and Ryan wanted her to do and the storyline still would have been Fortenberry won comfortably.

Let's remember how badly we are outnumbered in this state. Our "it" boy got beat handily by Adrian Smith. Our grassroots hero lost by the same margin to Lee Terry. I don't like losing anymore than the next guy. But it will take time to rebuild the Democratic party. It might not happen in 2008, it might not happen in 2010. If we're patient and keep working we might see a payoff in 2014 or 2016. The GOP didn't get their overwhelming margin overnight and we're not going to erode it overnight. Keep the faith brothers and sisters.

Jon Rehm

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

I don't put much stock in campaign models because I think every election is a different beast. And, I'm well aware how easy it is to sit back and play armchair quarterback, finding fault and questioning strategies, especially post-election.

But, in response to Jon, I think it's WAY OFF BASE to suggest that Moul couldn't possibly have won. Fortenberry does not and did not have a lock on his seat. The idea that registration numbers made it impossible for Moul to win is defeatist and insulting to Nebraska voters. Ben Nelson polled at 70% in Lincoln, where Moul had to beat Fortenberry handily but didn't even come very close.

Moul did not click with voters, but there was potential and there were opportunities. I'm all in favor of patience, but let's not use it as an excuse for disappointing performance.

Anonymous Ryan Anderson said...

Yeah, Kyle. I suppose I don't mean models so much as examples. Esch and Kleeb showed us that even Democrats with no prior political experience or name recognition can get significant traction from unconventional tactics and styles. Moul showed us that even Democrats with sparkling resumes and a generous surplus of experience can't afford to play it safe.

Not in Nebraska, at least.

Anonymous Jon Rehm said...

Fortenberry is beatable, but Maxine probably wasn't the person to beat him. Overcoming 18 points is a lot of what if's and missed opportunities.

The party was in absolute shambles in 2002, we've come a long ways since then and it's a credit that we could recruit Maxine in the first place. But to knock off Fortenberry you need a candidate with more resources, probably more charisma and a stronger grass roots base.


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