Republican voters in Nebraska on Tuesday defied the expectations of pundits and the intentions of outside groups, nominating a heretofore little-known rancher and state lawmaker to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by incumbent Democrat Ben Nelson.
Deb Fischer, 61, rode a last-minute surge in support to defeat the establishment-favored candidate, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning. In the November general election, she will face a former governor and former senator — Bob Kerrey — who easily won the Democratic nomination.
Fischer had lagged behind Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg in the polls and in fundraising for the race. But her candidacy caught fire going into the campaign's final days, after receiving an endorsement from Sarah Palin.
Fischer also benefited from a $200,000 ad buy last weekend from a superPAC led by Omaha businessman Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade and co-owner of the Chicago Cubs. The ad questioned Bruning's character and financial dealings.
Fischer also lucked out in her opponents' strategy. Stenberg had the support of the conservative Club for Growth and South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, both of which also launched a string of negative attack ads against Bruning, who had a wide lead in the polls throughout the campaign. But rather than aid Stenberg, the ads ultimately helped Fischer, who largely remained above the fray.
In a statement on her Facebook page, Palin — the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate — said Fischer as recently as a week ago had been "dismissed by the establishment. Why? Because she is not part of the good old boys' permanent political class."
Palin said: "The message from the people of Nebraska is simple and powerful: America is looking for real change in Washington, and commonsense conservatives like Deb Fischer represent that change."
Now Fischer faces Kerrey, an experienced campaigner, who has won three statewide races in Nebraska, but who also has been absent from the state for the past 12 years, after he moved to New York City to take the presidency of The New School.
In remarks Tuesday night, Fischer made clear she intends to make Kerrey's residency an issue in the general election, saying: "We need somebody who's different. Somebody's who's tough. Somebody who's a Nebraskan."
Fischer has been a member of Nebraska's unique unicameral Legislature since 2004, focusing largely on education issues. Her only other political experience was a stint on the local school board.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour in the Midwest with a Nebraska upset. Republican voters surprised pundits and the party establishment last night by nominating a relatively unknown and underfunded state lawmaker to run for the U.S. Senate. Her name is Deb Fischer, and she defeated not one but two better known rivals. In November, she'll face former Senator Bob Kerrey for the seat being vacated by a Democrat. NPR's Brian Naylor has the story about the Nebraska rancher who had never ran for statewide office.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Sixty-one-year-old Deb Fischer had lagged behind the establishment-favored candidate, Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning, throughout the primary campaign. She raised far less than Bruning or state treasurer Don Stenberg, both of whom had support from various groups associated with the Tea Party. But last night, it was Fischer who got to high-five her supporters at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln.
STATE SENATOR DEB FISCHER: Yay. Do you guys remember when I looked at you and I said we can do this?
Yeah. We can do this, and thanks to you, we've done it.
NAYLOR: Fischer rode a last-minute surge to victory, beating Bruning by some 10,000 votes and more than doubling Stenberg's total. Her candidacy caught fire in the last few days. She got an endorsement from Sarah Palin, and she also benefited from a string of negative ads against Bruning. Some were financed by an Omaha businessman who supported her. Other ads, aimed at helping Stenberg, came from the Club for Growth and Republican Senator Jim DeMint's Senate Conservative Fund. Ultimately, they all worked to Fischer's advantage.
Fischer is the mother of three sons. She's been a member of Nebraska's unique unicameral legislature since 2004. She also volunteered on the local school board. So while untested on the state level, she's not a political neophyte. Michael Wagner teaches political science at the University of Nebraska.
DR. MICHAEL WAGNER, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA: She's not a Tea Party candidate with no legislative experience. She's an honest-to-goodness politician. She doesn't have statewide experience in the way that Bob Kerrey does or Jon Bruning did, but she's a formidable candidate and certainly surprised the state in how she performed in the primary, but now, I think, you know, ought to be considered the frontrunner in the general election.
NAYLOR: Now, Fischer faces Kerrey, an experienced campaigner who's won three statewide races in Nebraska but who also has been absent from the state for the past 12 years after he moved to New York to become president of The New School. In her remarks last night, Fischer made clear Kerrey's residency will be an issue in the general election.
FISCHER: We don't need the same type of person who supposedly is going to represent us in Washington. We need somebody different, somebody who's tough, somebody who's effective, somebody who is a Nebraskan.
NAYLOR: Republicans have long eyed the Nebraska seat as a likely pickup in their efforts to win control of the chamber from majority Democrats. Democrats are already taking aim at Fischer, accusing her of hypocrisy for saying she will make tough choices to cut the federal budget while benefiting from over $100,000 in taxpayer subsidies to graze her cattle on federal land. Meanwhile, Fischer today sent out a fundraising email, calling herself, quote, "Barack Obama's worst nightmare" and exhibit A, showing that Republicans are not only pro-woman but they plan to put more conservative women in the U.S. Senate. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.