WASHINGTON — All U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry said was that he would consider a run for the Senate, but the Nebraska Republican finds himself already taking fire from an outside conservative group that dropped more than $1 million into the state's 2012 Senate race.
In a Wednesday morning email, the Senate Conservatives Fund alerted supporters to this week's announcement by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., that he would not seek re-election.
“This opens up a Senate seat in a bright red state and gives us another opportunity to elect a strong, principled leader,” wrote the group's executive director, Matt Hoskins. “The ... retirement is a surprise, but a welcome one for many conservatives.”
Hoskins said in the email and an interview with The World-Herald that, while the group will vet any candidate who comes forward, Fortenberry is clearly an unacceptable choice.
He criticized Fortenberry for various votes, including his support for the debt-ceiling compromise and for increasing income taxes, an apparent reference to the fiscal cliff legislation that allowed tax rates to go up on the wealthiest Americans.
That legislation also made permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for about 99 percent of Americans, preventing their income tax rates from rising.
Fortenberry spokesman Josh Moenning took issue with the group's suggestion that the congressman who represents much of eastern Nebraska, including parts of Sarpy County, is not conservative enough.
“It is interesting that this simple comment that he's considering a Senate run would trigger such an inflammatory reaction from Washington, D.C., special interests,” Moenning said. “The congressman's always represented a new conservatism that is traditional in its foundations but looks for constructive solutions to the complex problems affecting our families and communities.”
Moenning cited Fortenberry's opposition to Wall Street bailout legislation, the federal health care law and the 2009 economic stimulus bill.
He also cited an opinion piece by Rod Dreher published Wednesday that cited Fortenberry's lifetime rating of 86 percent from the American Conservative Union.
“If Fortenberry runs for Johanns' seat, his candidacy will be an interesting test case,” Dreher wrote on the American Conservative's website.
“It's shocking to think that a Republican as conservative as Fortenberry — a Catholic Republican who has the potential to appeal to socially conservative Democrats, and, given his relative youth, to hold that Senate seat for the GOP for a long time — is not ideologically pure enough for these party activists.”
Fortenberry made news a few years ago when he disavowed his signature on the no-tax-increase-ever pledge promoted by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. Fortenberry said the pledge was too restrictive to allow for effective policymaking in the face of significant budget challenges.
Founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the Senate Conservatives Fund is not afraid to open its checkbook to back its picks and to encourage its right-leaning supporters to give.
The group bragged in its email that it helped elect Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
The group backed Don Stenberg in the GOP primary because it was opposed to frontrunner Jon Bruning. It put together $1.3 million in total support — including its own expenditures and contributions from supporters — for Stenberg.
After Fischer made an 11th-hour surge to capture the nomination, the group then delivered nearly $500,000 in total support, counting both direct spending and the money it raised from supporters. She went on to easily defeat Democrat Bob Kerrey in the general election.
In his email, Hoskins described Johanns as a “moderate Republican” and referred critically to some of his votes, including his support for Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense.
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