POLITICS

Why This Nebraska Democrat Thinks She Can Get Elected In Trump Country

State Sen. Kate Bolz's congressional district has been held by Republicans since 1964. She wants to change that in 2020.

A Nebraska Democrat is hoping GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s devotion to President Donald Trump — and the state’s sinking support for the president — will help her flip a district that has elected a Republican to Congress since 1964. 

State Sen. Kate Bolz, a former social worker who grew up on a family farm southeast of Lincoln, is running to oust Fortenberry next year. Since Fortenberry won his seat in 2004, he has been reelected by comfortable margins in the state’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses Lincoln (home of the University of Nebraska), Bellevue, Offutt Air Force base and rural towns. 

Bolz sees an opening in 2020, despite Fortenberry’s past popularity and the Trump’s triumph in the district in 2016 by 20 percentage points. She hopes to capitalize on the “blue wave” momentum of the 2018 election and her state’s large share of independent voters to finally flip the seat.

“I think people are paying attention more now than ever, partly because of the national context,” she said. 

Bolz is one of thousands of Democratic women running for higher office across the country in 2020. While she’s no first-time candidate, having won her legislative seat in 2012, she’s part of the larger push to get more Democratic women elected next year. 

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) "has done nothing to help Nebraska farmers hurt by the trade war,” state Sen. Kate Bolz
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) "has done nothing to help Nebraska farmers hurt by the trade war,” state Sen. Kate Bolz said. She hopes to oust him in the 2020 election.

Fortenberry is a staunch Trump defender, and Bolz told HuffPost she was inspired by his inaction against the president to run for the House seat. Even after Fortenberry’s teenage daughter approached him in tears over Trump’s degrading comments about women in 2016, the congressman stood by the president, and he has since spoken out against House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. 

“The most troubling things are less the actions that [Fortenberry] has taken ― it’s his inaction on issues of such great importance,” Bolz said in discussing her decision to challenge him.

“Bolz is going to be a strong candidate, but I’m not sure that will be enough,” said John Hibbing, a professor of politics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I do think it’s a long shot.”

A surefire route to a Bolz win, Hibbing said, would be “a complete collapse of the Trump administration.”

And that potential collapse may be coming in the wake of the president’s Ukraine controversy.

“The key would be what Fortenberrry’s position is on that, and if he goes down with the ship, which could be damaging to him,” Hibbing said. “It would look bad, so I’m not sure he would do that.” 

But thus far, he has. 

Fortenberry — a Louisiana native who moved to the Cornhusker State after college and served on Lincoln City Council before being elected to Congress ― has called the impeachment inquiry “drama.” He said he “found no violation of campaign laws” after reading the White House-issued summary of Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that kicked into gear the push to oust Trump from office.

When reached via email for comment about Bolz’s campaign, Fortenberry said simply, “Borrrrrrrrrring.”

“Every election cycle I see the same negative political playbook: Attacks on my commitment to America’s farmers and my work to help persons caught in this healthcare crisis,” Fortenberry told HuffPost in an email on Sunday.  “This is the intent and fuller meaning of my single word comment ― what’s ‘boring’ is the same negative attacks.”

Bolz, 40, is running on a platform that she said is influenced by her background in social work and her deep understanding and connection to her district. Before she was elected to the Legislature, she worked for children and families at the non-profit Nebraska Appleseed. She also serves as executive director at the Nebraska Association of Service Providers, which offers professional support and resources for people with disabilities. 

“My social work background helps me keep people first,” she said. “We need to be focused on the people and not on the politics … I believe Nebraskans are still open to voting for the person, not the party.”

Supporting Nebraska’s Farmers 

That belief fuels her bid to break the entrenched GOP hold on the 1st Congressional District. ”Nebraskans are independent-minded,” she told HuffPost.

The state’s fastest growing bloc of voters are independents, designated as non-partisan. In 2018, 21% of Nebraskans were registered as non-partisan ― a significant jump from the 14% in 2000. 

“There are lots of reasons that we really believe we can run and win,” Bolz said. She’s primarily interested in stressing the need for affordable health care access and ensuring economic stability for the district’s farmers. 

Since announcing her campaign last month, Bolz has hit Fortenberry hard for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. 

“One of the things that motivates me the most is the fact that Rep. Fortenberry voted against 768,000 Nebraskans” when he opposed the ACA, she said.

She noted that the state approved Medicaid expansion through a ballot initiative, and that most voters in the 1st Congressional District supported it. 

Fortenberry, 58, also supports Trump’s trade dispute with China, despite the estimated $950 million that Nebraskans have lost because of it. 

The incumbent “has done nothing to help Nebraska farmers hurt by the trade war,” Bolz said when she announced her campaign.

“I have led support for essential public policies in agriculture and other areas to minimize drama in the budgetary process, as well as disaster relief for many farmers and ranchers so hurt by recent floods,” Fortenberry told HuffPost. He pointed to his sponsorship of the 2018 Rural Health Insurance Act, which would institute a loan and grant program for agricultural association health care plans, and the CHILD Act, which he reintroduced in January after its first iteration failed to pick up traction in 2018. The CHILD Act would institute community health improvement programs as well as a health claims database to track illness rates and associated health care costs.

Bolz plans a listening tour of the state during November and told HuffPost she’s encouraged that “people have been so kind and supportive” of her as she has campaigned.

“I think people are eager for a race in this district, and a political leader who’s willing to listen,” she said. “I care about my neighbors and my community, and if you care about the best interests of farmers and families and Nebraska voters, you have to care about this election.”

This piece has been updated with additional comment from Fortenberry.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the estimated loses to Nebraska from the trade war as $950 billion; they are estimated to be $950 million.

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