OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska state Sen. Mike Flood won a special election Tuesday to replace former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a fellow Republican who was sentenced to two years of probation earlier in the day for a conviction on charges that he lied to federal agents.
Flood beat Democratic state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks in the state’s Republican-leaning 1st District, which includes Lincoln and dozens of smaller, mostly conservative towns in eastern Nebraska.
Flood, a former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, will serve the rest of what would have been Fortenberry’s ninth term. He’ll be a strong favorite to win a new term in November, when he faces Pansing Brooks again.
In a brief interview after his win, Flood promised to be a conservative advocate for the district and a champion for local infrastructure projects and agriculture. Throughout the campaign, he sought to blame President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for rising inflation, and pledged to fight Biden administration policies.
Flood acknowledged that he needs to do more to boost his support in the Lincoln area, one of the only pockets of Democratic strength in the district. Flood's victory was narrower than in previous elections, when Fortenberry would easily beat Democratic challengers with more than 60% of the vote.
“I recognize that I have work to do,” Flood said.
In a statement, Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said the narrower-than-expected margin shows the need for more national party support in rural areas that are often viewed as unwinnable.
“Sen. Pansing Brooks connected with voters and started to change the political landscape of Nebraska,” Kleeb said.
Both candidates were nominated by their parties’ leaders in April to run in the special election. The next month, Nebraska primary voters picked them to run in the general election.
In court Tuesday, Fortenberry sat quietly as U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld ordered him to serve probation, pay a $25,000 fine and perform community service. Blumenfeld rejected prosecutors’ request for a six-month prison sentence, saying the ex-congressman's behavior in the case was out of character.
Fortenberry later said he planned to appeal, arguing that prosecutors never should have brought the case and accusing them of taking advantage of his trust.
“This has been very traumatic and we’ve got a way to go,” he said outside the courthouse. “But I am grateful that ... the judge recognized that the pattern of what I wanted to do with my life was simply to serve in public office and to try to help people.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said prosecutors disagreed with the decision not to impose prison time, but noted the judge’s comments endorsing the jury’s decision.
Fortenberry resigned in March shortly after a California jury found him guilty in the corruption case. He has maintained his innocence and said he plans to appeal. Before he was indicted in October, Fortenberry was expected to sail to an easy win.
Prosecutors alleged Fortenberry lied to federal agents multiple times about $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions he received from a foreign national at a 2016 fundraiser in Los Angeles. Federal law bars donations from foreign nationals.
At trial, prosecutors played phone recordings between Fortenberry and a donor-turned-informant, who warned the congressman that the donations had likely been funneled to him from Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent. Fortenberry’s attorneys argued that he didn’t hear the warning due to bad cellphone reception.
Fortenberry maintained his innocence, going so far as to release a preemptive denial of the charges before they were announced in a video that he filmed inside a 1963 Ford F-150 pickup, with his wife and dog at his side. He also continued to campaign, decrying his prosecution as politically motivated and airing attack ads against Flood.
But as more details of the case became public, Fortenberry quickly lost support among top Nebraska Republicans. Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman dealt him a major blow when they endorsed Flood.
Flood stayed mostly positive, airing several lighthearted ads, including one where he described himself as a conservative “nerd” who would get things done in Washington.
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Melley reported from Los Angeles.