Nebraska Senate Race Tightens

by Betsy Woodruff

A few months ago, the Nebraska Senate race seemed like one of the few contests that wouldn’t give Republicans heartburn. Ben Nelson, the retiring incumbent, burned through a lot of goodwill when he voted for the Affordable Care Act, alienating himself from much of his base and jeopardizing his chances at being reelected. So when he decided to retire, the seat he left open seemed like an easy win for Republicans from the start. And while it’s still probably going to turn red, recent poll data has given many conservatives concerns about the increasing competitiveness of what should have been an easy win. 

Deb Fischer, the Republican nominee, was an unlikely candidate from the start. Of the three in the primary, she had the lowest name recognition and the least prominence. She’s a rancher, and she worked her way up from the school board to the state senate, winning her first statewide race in 2004 by 125 votes. As the dark-horse candidate in the primary, she defeated the state treasurer and attorney general. That should have been the hardest part. 

But then Bob Kerrey came in. The former Nebraska governor and senator spent ten years as the president of the New School in Manhattan. He would have stayed in the Big Apple, but Harry Reid made him a promise — and nobody but Harry and Kerrey seems to know what exactly that promise was — that persuaded him to run for office again. 

Kerrey has branded himself as a moderate who frowns upon the influence of outside groups in elections. Despite that, donations from New York and California have helped bankroll a series of attack ads that seem to have improved his standing in the race. Despite Kerrey’s strong name recognition in the state, Fischer started out with a sizable lead in the polls. The first Rasmussen poll gave her an 18-point lead in March, and Public Policy Polling gave her a ten-point lead later that month. Since then, though, her lead has significantly narrowed; an Omaha World-Herald poll of 800 registered voters from late October had her up by only three points. Ads from Kerrey’s camp have attacked her character, accusing her of taking advantage of elderly neighbors in 1995. Nebraska political observers think the onslaught has played a role in narrowing her lead. 

Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, tells National Review Online that while he’s still optimistic about Fischer’s prospects, Republicans shouldn’t be overconfident. 

“It looks like he’s come on late, he’s competitive, and she’s going to have to finish strong and catch some wind in her back coming into the finish line,” he says. “But that’s sort of the tale of all the Senate races this year.”

“I don’t think you can ever take anything for granted,” he continues. “My sense is that when you talk about Nebraska, between the position that Kerrey has staked out on the issues from Obamacare to same-sex marriage to higher taxes on small businesses to the margin of victory that Romney is likely to have in Nebraska, I would think it’s still very uphill for Kerrey. But again, you can’t ever take anything for granted.”

Still, Real Clear Politics ranks it as “Likely GOP” and the consensus seems to remain that the race is hers to lose. Nebraskan congressman Jeff Fortenberry, who supported her primary run, tells National Review Online that he’s confident she’ll pull off a win. 

“She’s as sharp as barbed wire and solid as a cedar-fence post,” he says, adding that she’s approached the election cycle with the same tenacity that it takes to run a ranch — “Steady, plowing of the land, if you will,” he says. “I think it’s going to serve her very well.”

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