Deb Fischer, a conservative state senator, shocked the political world on Tuesday by beating two better-financed opponents in Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary. She now faces Bob Kerrey, a former governor and senator, in the general election. In most statewide races, Fischer’s low profile would be a handicap, but in this particular contest, anonymity may be an asset.
“People are tired of the usual politicians,” Fischer tells National Review Online. “I am becoming better known, and I’ve put 45,000 miles on my car as I’ve traveled around the state. But I come from a citizen legislature, where it’s about public service, and people have really responded.”
A decade in the political wilderness has done little to boost Kerrey, whose quirky personality led detractors to dub him “Cosmic Bob” during the Clinton years. According to Public Policy Polling, a majority of Nebraskans view him unfavorably, and the Democrat’s post-Senate stint as an academic administrator at the uber-liberal New School in Manhattan has won him few plaudits.
Senator Mike Johanns, a former governor, urges Fischer to remind voters about Kerrey’s aversion to “mainstream Nebraska thinking.” On key issues, such as cap-and-trade legislation, Obamacare, traditional marriage, and abortion, “he’s way out there,” Johanns says.
But Kerrey’s problems may go beyond policy. Nineteen years ago, irritated by the swarm of reporters pestering him about an upcoming vote, Kerrey memorably strolled to a local movie theater to see a Tina Turner biopic, alone, as President Bill Clinton’s economic plan was being whipped.
GOP operatives recall that episode, one of many instances of eccentric behavior, as an example of how Kerrey’s persona may be a factor, albeit a quieter one than others. Most Nebraskans respect Kerrey, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, for his service, but his reputation as a flaky progressive has calcified.
“He’s a competent guy, but he’s done surprisingly poorly in the polls,” says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “It’s just too obvious that he has become a New Yorker.”
Brian Baker, the president of Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC and one of Fischer’s biggest primary backers, agrees. One of his organization’s most potent pro-Fischer ads, he says, used the tagline “one of us,” and touted her “outsider” credentials and ranching background.
“That ad encapsulated this race,” Baker says. “She’s a fresh face running against someone who has been out of Nebraska for ten years. When people learn about her, they connect with her.”
In her election-night speech on Tuesday, Fischer alluded to Kerrey’s chief vulnerability. “We don’t need the same type of person,” she said.“We need somebody different, somebody who’s tough, somebody who’s effective, and somebody who’s a Nebraskan,” she added, emphasizing the last word.
“Fischer is not going to run an aggressively negative campaign, but that kind of sly remark will continue,” says John Hibbing, a political-science professor at the University of Nebraska. “Kerrey’s liberal positions are not consistent with the ethos of this conservative state. Fischer is untested in statewide elections, but sometimes it’s enough to be a Republican without baggage.”