LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Indicted U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's political fortunes took a major hit Friday when two of Nebraska's most prominent Republicans withdrew their longtime support for him and endorsed a state lawmaker who hopes to unseat the nine-term congressman in the GOP primary.
Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman announced that they would support state Sen. Mike Flood, who is challenging Fortenberry amid concerns that the federal charges he faces could cost the GOP an otherwise safe House seat.
Fortenberry has pleaded not guilty to charges accusing him of making false statements to federal investigators about an illegal $30,000 campaign contribution from a foreign national and not properly disclosing it in his campaign filings.
Fortenberry represents the solidly Republican 1st Congressional District in Nebraska and has coasted to easy wins throughout his time in office with the endorsement of the state party's leadership. Despite the charges, Fortenberry announced this month that he plans to seek reelection.
“Certainly, I think Congressman Fortenberry has got a lot of uncertainty with regard to whether he would be able to remain in the job with this indictment,” Ricketts said during a news conference at the Capitol.
Ricketts said Flood, a former speaker of the Legislature, has worked with him on legislative issues and shown that he's a strong conservative.
“I think what we want to do is make sure that we keep this seat in Republican hands, and having the personal experience of working with Mike Flood... I know that he's going to do a fantastic job for (the district)," Ricketts said. “We're endorsing the conservative that we think will be able to win in November.”
Heineman, the state's longest-serving governor, said he's had conversations with many GOP voters who are “apprehensive and concerned” about Fortenberry's legal troubles.
“He is in the fight of his life in this legal battle," Heineman said. “It's going to have a significant impact on his personal and professional life.”
Flood, an attorney who owns a chain of Nebraska radio and television stations, said he plans to make the case to voters that he's best suited to represent their interests.
“I'm going to focus on doing the best job I can, making sure the people in the 1st District know that I'm a strong conservative,” he said.
The winner of the GOP primary is expected to face state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a well-known Democrat from Lincoln with a strong fundraising background. Lincoln is the district's largest city and a Democratic stronghold, but the entire district is dominated by conservative small towns and farmland and leans Republican.
In an interview, Pansing Brooks said she wasn't surprised to see another Republican challenge Fortenberry and win support from some major party leaders. She said her focus is on fundraising and meeting voters throughout the district to build a strong campaign.
“May the best woman win,” she said.
Fortenberry still holds endorsements from other prominent GOP officials in the district, including Lt. Gov. Mike Foley and Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning, as well as some Nebraska business leaders and the executive director of Nebraska Right to Life. In a statement, Fortenberry said voters will pass their own judgment on the character of the candidates in the race.
“Today's announcement is particularly disappointing because I have counted these people as friends, and you hope you can rely on your friends to stand by you when you face adversity like a false and unjust accusation,” Fortenbery said. “However, I've been very happy to receive endorsements for my reelection from business, community and political leaders across the 1st District."
He said he will continue talking to voters "about the accomplishments, leadership and conservative values that make me the best person to earn their vote and represent them in Congress."
Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte