Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, RINO?

02.20.13 2:00 PM ET

Nebraska Representative Jeff Fortenberry (Kris Connor/Getty Images)

What does the future of the GOP look like in the near term? Here's an example from my home state.

Sen. Mike Johanns, a Republican from Nebraska, recently announced he'll retire in 2014. (This came as a shock to basically everyone, as he's very popular back home).

If Gov. Dave Heineman wants the job, I suspect he'll win the primary in a landslide, making this post a moot point.

But if Heineman doesn't run, two leading candidates will be Rep. Adrian Smith and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Smith hails from my home district, Nebraska-3, one of the most rural and conservative districts in the country. Fortenberry represents Nebraska-1, which is basically the eastern fifth of the state except for Omaha. (See picture below)

Smith is a hardline conservative, Fortenberry slightly less so. But Fortenberry has attracted considerable negative attention for refusing to sign Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" and for voting for the fiscal cliff deal.

Yet, as Rod Dreher explains at The American Conservative, Fortenberry is far from a squishy RINO:

The real problem the DeMintors have with him is that he wouldn’t sign Norquist’s pledge, and he thinks the GOP needs to rethink its tax policy in light of current realities, versus sticking with an ideological orthodoxy that is arguably plutocratic, not conservative. They may also oppose him because he agreed to the fiscal cliff deal — he explained his reasons for voting for it here — and because he once said it was irresponsible to talk about impeaching Obama.

If conservative fundraising activists reject out of hand a candidate like Jeff Fortenberry — with an 86 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union — on grounds that he’s too liberal on economic issues, who on earth will they accept? Do they even care about winning elections? Are Catholic politicians only welcome in the GOP if they check their Catholicism at the door when it comes to economics? Are the only conservatives these activists welcome in the GOP those who do not question economic orthodoxy, even if they do so from a different set of conservative philosophical assumptions?

My first encounter with Fortenberry was at an American Legion event in high school, where the Representative spoke before a tough audience on why we were mishandling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a brave speech, and while the Representative is no pushover on defense issues, showed he's someone the GOP should be elevating, not casting off as a RINO. (It was also a reminder that Fortenberry, while sharing some of Sen. Chuck Hagel's heterodox tendencies, is the anti-Hagel when it comes to tone and substance.)

In its own way, the very conservative state of Nebraska will be an excellent experiment for the path of the post-2012 GOP.

If someone with a lifetime conservative rating of 86% can't attract support, who can? And if the party veers further to the right, how does the GOP have a shot on the national level?