In The Final Days Of The NE-1 Congressional Race, Healthcare, COVID-19 Take A Front Seat

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October 14, 2020 - 6:00pm

In the race for Nebraska’s first district congressional seat, all three candidates can agree on at least one thing: healthcare is a major concern among voters this year, and the coronavirus pandemic has only sharpened that focus.

But the ongoing crisis is raising the stakes for other hot topics among voters, highlighting the interconnectedness of key issues like healthcare, economic security, agricultural policy, and racial justice.

Republican incumbent Jeff Fortenberry and Democrat Kate Bolz have tried to embrace the gray areas. Libertarian Dennis Grace,  a private investigator in Fremont, says he’s focusing on problems often overlooked on campaign trails.

“If you have a complaint about a system or something else that you can change — and don't — then you have no right to complain about that anymore,” he explained on a phone call some weeks ago.

The complaint? He says he’s lost confidence in America’s two-party system, saying U.S. politics have become polarized beyond functioning. Congress’ fight over the first round of COVID-19 stimulus money comes to mind.

“We didn't need to fight and argue for months or weeks over what federal agencies were going to get gigantic amounts of extra money,” Grace said. “Who [needed extra money] were small coffee shops that were forced to close down and had to fire the 10 neighborhood kids that worked there.

One of his primary term goals is repealing the The Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution passed in 2001, which permitted military action against perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

(Photo from Dennis Grace for Congress Facebook page)

“That will bring the powers back to Congress where they should be and out of the hands of a president,” he said. “You can't just say that somebody is evil, and we need to go after them … it can't just be constant, lifelong wars against unnamed or faceless enemies.”

He also wants to pursue support for early career farmers, including incentives for “cleaner” farming practices, and measures to improve federal relations with indigenous communities.

Despite focusing on less conventional term goals, Grace agrees with his opponents that the coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for healthcare reform. He supports Americans having access to both private and public insurance.

“I think that the federal system should be carried with you, it should be something that you get at birth, and it takes care of small emergency needs,” he said. “I think that if we allow the public system to take on some of the risk, I think that the private side will go down in costs … the private side could be used for your critical care, your heart attacks, your broken legs, your major surgeries.”

Democrat Kate Bolz of Palmyra supports a similar concept, centering a public option in her strategy against Republican incumbent Jeff Fortenberry.

She’s pledged to prioritize lowering prescription drugs costs and health insurance. Both are achievable, she says, through public-private partnerships and an optional state-funded insurance plan.

“I think that's especially important as we continue to grapple with coronavirus, but also as we think about small business owners and people involved in the agricultural economy,” she said.

“People pay very expensive health insurance premiums while also having significant co-pays and deductibles.”

At a recent debate hosted by NET, Republican incumbent Jeff Fortenberry took aim at the idea of a public option and criticized the Affordable Care Act, which he voted to gut under the controversial American Health Care Act in 2017.

“She does support a public option,” he said, turning to face the camera. “Let’s unpack what that means … that is a fancy way of saying more centralized government control that erodes your ability to get health care from your employer.”

He wants Nebraskans to get their healthcare from their employers, though federal data shows around nearly a quarter of employers in our region do not offer healthcare packages to their employees.

Fortenberry also supports passing legislation that would allow drug manufacturers to sell directly to patients. “This approach can be scaled across our system to eliminate bureaucracy, price inflation, and excess profiteering from sickness,” his campaign’s website reads.

Bolz countered that lawmakers should be maximizing options for self-employed Nebraskans like farmers, who’ve seen monumental trade losses in recent years. Between the trade war with China and the pandemic, over fifty billion dollars in federal aid has been earmarked to keep producers afloat.

The Democratic campaign has also cited a billion dollars in 2019 losses among Nebraska farmers due to the trade war, a figure calculated by economist Jay Rempe for the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

“So much economic insecurity has come along with the circumstances of the coronavirus … so being able to be in a position to advocate for jobs and for the stability and success of Nebraska's agricultural economy is something that's more important than ever.”

On agriculture, Fortenberry mirrored the Trump Administration’s hardline approach to global trade policy and reliance on federal payments, criticizing China for unfair trade practices, human rights violations, and environmental pollution.

“We support farmers and ranchers and stabilization policies, while we're working aggressively to try to reset and build a proper relationship with China regarding trade so that it is both smart and both fair,” Fortenberry emphasized.

Bolz agreed that the U.S.-China relationship needs improvement, but expressed urgency to break the cycle of direct payments.

“We don't want government welfare,” she said. “What we want is the opportunity to sell our goods all over the world … we need to build stronger relationships with our allies to push back on the human rights violations that congressman Fortenberry references without closing the doors to markets.”

On the topic of federal aid, all three candidates support a second round of stimulus money for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program, though Rep. Fortenberry cautioned against overspending.

“We need to stay with things that are about COVID: protecting our healthcare system, helping individuals and families, helping small business, not adding all the extraneous types of Washington stuff that overly politicizes,” he said.

In an interview before the debate, Bolz agreed that a second stimulus package should be “fiscally responsible."

Campaign finances have also become a recurring theme in the race, in an era where candidates are increasingly using their fundraising strategies to make statements about where their loyalties lie. Dennis Grace took up delivering through Doordash to pay for campaign finances, saying he does not feel comfortable asking possible constituents for money, while Bolz says her campaign has leaned into soliciting individual donations.

“I think that contemporary American politics are too influenced by funding from special interest groups and partisan interests,” she said. “And not enough by, you know, doing the work of representative democracy.” 

Both Sen. Bolz and Rep. Fortenberry’s campaigns have taken money from Political Action Committees (PACs) in varying degrees. According to FEC data, the Bolz has collected just over $550,000, with 4.5% of that money coming from union and labor advocacy PACs.

48% of Rep. Fortenberry’s over $890,000 in funds come from various partisan and industry PACs including weapons manufacturers, health insurance providers, and pharmaceutical companies. The Fortenberry campaign did not respond to questions about fundraising philosophy in time for publication, though this article will be updated if more information becomes available. 



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