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GOP Confident in Bereuter’s District

After a heated Republican primary fueled by outside spending, the stage is set for a race to replace retiring Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) that Democrats say they can win despite the district’s strong GOP tilt.

While Democrats are also pleased with their candidate in the 2nd district race against Rep. Lee Terry (R), the results in Bereuter’s 1st district — where former Lincoln City Councilman Jeff Fortenberry (R) will face state Sen. Matt Connealy (D) in November — led the Cornhusker State’s political news following Tuesday’s primary.

Even though the district gave President Bush 59 percent of the vote in 2000, Democrats contend that Connealy — who beat three other primary candidates with 50 percent of the vote — has a centrist profile and experience on agricultural issues that give him a fighting chance against the conservative Fortenberry.

Connealy “is the candidate who has a record delivering for Nebraska, and his opponent is the ideologue,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed.

But Republicans feel confident that the seat’s GOP leanings make a Connealy upset highly unlikely.

“He’s still got that big ‘D’ after his name,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti. “In a district like this, that matters.”

Fortenberry won the 1st district Republican nod with 39 percent of the vote despite the fact that his two main competitors, state Speaker Curt Bromm (who got 33 percent) and Nebraska Cattlemen executive Greg Ruehle (21 percent), both received prominent endorsements and fundraising help from outside organizations.

The fiscally conservative groups Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform backed Ruehle and spent significant sums attacking Bromm, who was endorsed by the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership.

Fortenberry, meanwhile, largely escaped the negative crossfire and quietly built a formidable grassroots organization, one that Republicans believe will help him beat Connealy in November.

Strategists said Fortenberry’s win illustrated the fact that the intervention of outside groups in Congressional races can have unpredictable results.

“Those who are astutely watching Nebraska said this could happen and it did,” said NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.). “There’s some districts that don’t appreciate outside input.”

In some respects the GOP primary in Bereuter’s seat resembled the battle to succeed another retiring centrist, California Rep. Doug Ose. In that contest, Club for Growth endorsed state Sen. Rico Oller while the Main Street Partnership backed the incumbent’s sister, real estate developer Mary Ose. In the end a third candidate, ex-Rep. Dan Lungren, won the Republican nod.

Following the nastiness that pervaded the Nebraska fight, the state’s Republicans appear poised to unite behind Fortenberry, who will have Bereuter’s backing despite the veteran Member’s initial preference for Bromm.

“Mr. Bereuter has already had several conversations with Mr. Fortenberry and has endorsed his candidacy,” Bereuter spokeswoman Carol Lawrence said Wednesday.

Bromm, Ruehle and Gov. Mike Johanns (R) all attended a unity rally for the nominee Wednesday in Lincoln.

Rep. Tom Osborne (R), the former University of Nebraska football coach who is one of the most popular figures in the state, said he did not know Fortenberry but that he had heard good things about him. Osborne said he planned to “visit” with the GOP nominee soon and would then figure out what he could do to help his campaign.

Fortenberry will need that unity to help him overcome Connealy’s initial financial advantage. As of April 21 the Republican had raised $128,000 and had just $18,000 left in the bank, while the Democrat had brought in $187,000 with $96,000 on hand.

Following that pre-primary report, Fortenberry put $25,000 of his own money into the race, adding to the $15,000 he had already contributed.

In the 2nd district, Terry will square off against state Sen. Nancy Thompson (D) in a seat that gave Bush 57 percent of the vote in 2000.

“She’s a very good campaigner,” Terry said of Thompson, who had no primary opposition. “She’s going to make us have to work for it.”

Terry added that Thompson would likely try to cast him as too conservative, but he said, “I’m pretty mainstream for the 2nd district of Nebraska.”

The DCCC’s Speed described the contest against Terry as “a race that we’re looking at very closely,” pointing out that Thompson has experience representing a Republican-leaning district.

But Forti suggested Democrats were engaged in wishful thinking if they believed they could unseat a three-term incumbent in a solidly GOP-favored district. “They can talk all they want to but that ain’t happening,” the NRCC spokesman said.

In West Virginia, voters on Tuesday chose nominees in two contested primaries to take on heavily favored incumbent Reps. Shelly Moore Capito (R) and Nick Rahall (D).

In Capito’s 2nd district, former TV news anchorman Erik Wells won a crowded Democratic primary but is a heavy underdog against the two-term incumbent. Building contractor Rick Snuffer won the GOP primary in the 3rd district and will take on Rahall.

In the 1st district, Marion County Commissioner Alan Parks, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary, will be the underdog against Rep. Alan Mollohan (D).

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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