Deb Fischer Wins Nebraska GOP Senate Primary

Deb Fischer Wins Nebraska GOP Senate Primary

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 16, 2012

Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer scored a major upset in the Cornhusker State's Republican Senate primary, a three-way race that divided prominent conservatives Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Jim DeMint.

Fischer surged in the final days of the campaign to defeat Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg, winning 40 percent of the support. Bruning garnered 36 percent, and Stenberg had 19 percent.

Fischer will go on to face Democrat Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and senator heavily recruited by his party to run for the seat held for two terms by Democrat Ben Nelson. Facing a negative, uphill re-election battle in the traditionally red state, Nelson opted to retire instead.

Most analysts say the Republican nominee should be favored to win in November, given that the state chose John McCain by 15 points in 2008 and George W. Bush by 33 points in 2004. Kerrey’s candidacy is expected to make the race competitive, however. Republicans need a net gain of four seats to win the majority in the upper chamber, and Nelson’s exit makes Nebraska a strong pickup opportunity.

But if this GOP primary is any indication of how the general election will unfold, outside groups figure to play an outsized role in Nebraska. In total, third-party organizations poured nearly $3 million into the race. The outside spending, operatives say, helped make the difference for Fischer.

The Republican primary had been widely considered Bruning’s to lose. The attorney general reported raising $3.5 million, while Fischer hauled in a little less than $400,000 and Stenberg $700,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Bruning, who made his opposition to the president’s health care law a campaign pillar, was the establishment’s top choice, but he also attracted a significant amount of conservative support. The Tea Party Express and Citizens United backed him, as did former presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, both well liked among conservatives and Tea Party adherents. But Bruning’s image took a hit early in the campaign when he compared welfare beneficiaries to scavenging raccoons and faced ethics questions surrounding his purchase of a lakefront home.

DeMint, the South Carolina senator who fashions himself a kingmaker in primary and general election congressional contests, threw in his lot with Stenberg, who had served two terms as attorney general before becoming state treasurer but had also run unsuccessfully for Senate twice. The Senate Conservative Fund, a super PAC headed by DeMint, spent nearly $1.2 million on his behalf. Club for Growth spent $728,000 and Freedom Works spent $272,000 in support of Stenberg.

The Club for Growth, which spent heavily in last week’s Indiana GOP primary that sent Sen. Dick Lugar into retirement, ultimately expressed support for Fischer Tuesday night after the results were final. The group’s president, Chris Chocola, said the defeat of Bruning was a success, and made no mention of Stenberg.

“While we did not support Deb Fischer, we are encouraged by the strong pro-growth stands she took in this campaign, and we expect she will live up to those commitments in the Senate next year,” Chocola said in a statement.

Bruning and Stenberg had focused their attacks on each other. At a primary debate last month, Bruning scolded Stenberg for allegedly following his teenage daughter’s postings on Twitter. (Stenberg said his staff handled his Twitter account.)

While those two candidates drew the most attention, Fischer flew quietly under the radar.

Last week, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed Fischer, and the Tea Party darling voiced robo-calls on her behalf. The momentum appeared to shift toward Fischer in the final days of the campaign, with a pair of polls showing her a few points ahead. In the final weekend, a super PAC run by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts spent $200,000 in ads supporting her. The Bruning campaign called foul, as those spots used some of the same video that appeared in a Fischer campaign ad.

ShePAC, a Republican group that supports conservative women and comprised of former Palin aides, backed Fischer, promoting her through Facebook ads, Web videos, and emails. The Ending Spending Fund also ran two ads in support of Fischer -- one touting her ranching roots and casting her two opponents as “lifetime politicians,” and another attacking Bruning on ethical matters.

Operatives describe Fischer as the most moderate of the three conservatives who competed for the GOP nod. National and state party officials are confident in her ability to compete against Kerrey. “There might just be some concern because she will have come through the primary relatively unscathed,” said one Republican operative, who also noted that there was "no hesitation" she could run ahead of Kerrey.

In congratulating the victor, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn focused on Fischer’s narrative. “Deb is a small business rancher, mother and conservative leader who believes we need to spend less, balance our budget and repeal ObamaCare, while her opponent supports bigger government and higher taxes,” he said.

Republicans perceive Kerrey as a weak candidate. His central liability is that he doesn't live in Nebraska anymore. After retiring from the Senate in 2001, Kerrey moved to New York City to head the progressive New School. He hasn't been on the ballot since 1994, and since he left office, analysts say, Nebraska has become even more conservative.

Democrats, though, argue that Fischer is untested statewide and will try to paint her as a Tea Party candidate. National Democrats circulated a statement Tuesday night, citing an Omaha World Herald report that Fischer and her husband were among several ranchers to benefit from a federal land subsidy. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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