Nebraska Upset Shapes Republican U.S. Senate Strategy

A little-known Nebraska rancher who bills herself as “sharp as barbed wire and tougher than a cedar fence post” will ride an upset win in the state’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate this week into a general election that could help flip control of the chamber this fall.

Capitalizing on a last-minute endorsement from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and a $254,864 advertising blitz spearheaded by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his political action committee, state Senator Deb Fischer defeated higher-profile opponents to advance to the general election against former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey.

Republicans must gain four seats in November to win control of the Senate. The Nebraska race to replace retiring Democratic Senator Ben Nelson places it among elections in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota that will determine the balance in the chamber.

“We’re going to have an incredibly provocative campaign,” said state Senator Danielle Conrad, a Democrat who has sat next to Fischer for six years. “She is well respected by her colleagues as a person who can pull off some fairly amazing legislative feats.”

As little as 10 days ago, Fischer trailed state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg by double digits in the Republican race. Bruning had a 10-to-1 advantage over her in fundraising, pulling in $3.5 million as of May 15, compared with $394,943 raised by Fischer, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group.

The mother of three and former rural school board member highlighted her record of fiscal conservatism, catching the attention of the Ending Spending Action Fund, a political action committee that received a majority of its money from Ricketts.

‘First Run’

“The other two candidates, between the two of them, ran for statewide office 16 times,” said Brian Baker, the fund’s president. “This is her first run for national office. People are tired of business as usual. They’re tired of the debt and the spending. They’re looking for fresh leadership.”

The fund spent $254,864 in Nebraska as of May 15, $130,682 in favor of Fischer and $124,182 against Bruning, according to campaign finance records on Television advertising against Bruning financed by the fund helped raise Fisher’s name recognition and kept her above her opponents’ mud slinging, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

‘Through the Middle’

“It’s a classic case of two leading candidates unloading on one another with negative advertising and a credible, but little known, third candidate coming up through the middle,” Sabato said.

Palin, whose endorsement sparked a social media campaign for Fischer, said on her Facebook page: “As recently as a week ago, Deb Fischer was dismissed by the establishment. Why? Because she’s not part of the good old boys’ permanent political class.”

U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Lincoln who also won his primary on May 15, endorsed Fischer and said he expects her work ethic, background as an educator and rancher and commitment to conservative values to help her beat Kerrey in November.

“Last summer I was riding my bicycle in my own neighborhood when I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said ’Deb Fischer for Senate,’ ” Fortenberry recalled. “It was her, campaigning in Lincoln nearly a year ago. That speaks to her hard work and effort.”

Kerrey Wins

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican, endorsed Fischer yesterday against Kerrey in the general election. In the Democratic primary this week, Kerrey won with more than 80 percent of the vote against lesser-known challengers. He returned to Nebraska to seek the seat after a decade as president of New York-based New School University.

Fischer sometimes spends snowy winter weekends working in the state capital because it’s too difficult to make the six-hour drive to her ranch in northern Nebraska, said the Legislature’s Republican Speaker, Mike Flood.

Her record during her eight years in the Legislature will be what voters use to judge her in the Senate race, colleagues say.

Fischer’s signature achievement in the Legislature, Flood said, was a bill she sponsored last year that earmarks $70 million annually in sales taxes to fund road improvements.

Cost of Bill

That bill, now law, may send the state’s budget into the red, Conrad said. She cited a report by Nebraska’s legislative fiscal office that said the cost of the infrastructure bill may contribute to a projected $245 million budget shortfall in fiscal 2014.

“It’s one of the largest earmarks in state history and a significant contributor to fiscally irresponsible, Washington-style deficit spending,” said Conrad, who led opposition to the bill.

Fischer’s campaign didn’t return a call for comment.

Flood praised the infrastructure bill and said Fischer single-handedly pushed it through by building coalitions.

“Last month we had $40 million more collected than we planned for,” Flood said. “The Legislature is ready to deal with any projected shortfall. Senator Fischer made roads a priority in a state with declining gas-tax revenues. Deb Fischer does her homework. I think when America meets her, they are really going to like her.”

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