The Washington Post

How Deb Fischer pulled an upset in Nebraska

Attorney General Jon Bruning was supposed to win the Nebraska Republican Senate primary — unless he was upset by state Treasurer Don Stenberg, who had the support of national conservatives.

Neither man won. Instead, Nebraska’s GOP nominee this fall will be state Rep. Deb Fischer, who surged in the past few weeks with little money or help. She’ll be the one to take on former senator Bob Kerrey (D).

So who is Fischer?

Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer gives the thumbs up as she addresses supporters at her election party in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, May 15, 2012. (Nati Harnik/AP)

She got involved in politics through local committees and boards, including the  Valentine Rural High School Board of Education. In 2004, she ran for the state’s unique unicameral legislature and won narrowly; she’s held the seat ever since. She currently chairs the powerful Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, where she’s focused on road funding.

Early on, Fischer got a reputation in the legislature for playing hardball and getting results. “She's one of the most talented and effective senators in the body, maybe in the history of the body,” one of her Democratic colleagues said in 2005.

She’s also clever — check out this interview with the Omaha World-Herald’s humor columnist Brad Dickson, in which she says her slogan is “More fun than Don, safer than Jon.”

So how did she win?

Fischer ran successfully as the rural, agricultural candidate against two city lawyers. There are nine states smaller than her state legislative district. (Looking at the county-by-county results, you can see how well Fischer performed in rural areas.)

Both her opponents had serious baggage. Some feared Bruning, a liberal in college, was just a political opportunist. Stenberg had lost three Senate races, and some Republicans wondered if he was too conservative to win a general election.

They both had the money to attack — Bruning from his own campaign, Stenberg from outside groups like the Club for Growth and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund.

While her opponents attacked each other, Fischer used her limited funds (she raised less than $400,000) to push a consistent message in ads — that she was a hard-working, conservative, small-town rancher and legislator.

By the time Fischer started to surge in polls and win endorsements from the likes of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and wealthy businessman Joe Ricketts, the election was a couple of weeks out and her opponents had little time to react.

Fischer‘s lack of baggage is why supporters say she’s the strongest candidate to take on Kerrey.

“The most disappointed person in the state this morning is Jon Bruning. The second most disappointed is Bob Kerrey,” said former Nebraska GOP chairman David Kramer, who backed Fischer in the primary.

While Bruning and Stenberg could have attacked Fischer from the right over state government taxes and spending, Kramer argued, in the general election Kerrey has little to exploit.

“People right now are fed up with career politicians and the way the country is going,” said Fischer’s campaign manager, Aaron Trost. “Sen. Deb Fischer is a fresh face.”

There are a couple issues Democrats have already highlighted. Fischer has been criticized for benefiting from a federal program that leases cattle-grazing land at a huge discount, a deal only 136 of Nebraska's 20,000 beef producers get. And she lost some support for backing the Keystone XL pipeline, which is controversial among rural Nebraskans.

“Deb Fischer is untested, unknown, and unscrutinized,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Shripal Shah. “One of the only things Nebraskans know about Deb Fischer is that while she talks tough on cutting waste in government, she personally profits off a sweetheart land deal subsidized by taxpayers.  This hypocrisy is just the tip of the Deb Fischer iceberg.”

If elected, Fischer will be Nebraska’s first female senator since 1954. That year, two women were appointed in succession to complete the term of Dwight Griswold, who died in office. Both served for only a few months.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.


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