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.”
A new Rasmussen poll of likely Nebraska voters, conducted after Fischer’s primary win, shows her leading Kerrey, 56 percent to 38 percent. Kerrey’s inability to climb above 40 percent should worry Democrats. Since Rasmussen last conducted a head-to-head poll in March, Fischer’s support has jumped 10 points; Kerrey, for his part, has hovered for months in the mid-30s.
Sensing trouble, Kerrey hit the trail hard this week, pledging to be a moderate Democrat if he wins back his former seat. “I am not going to be a reliable vote for the Democratic caucus,” he told a South Sioux City, Neb., crowd, according to the Sioux City Journal. Speaking about Obamacare, he reiterated his support, but he acknowledged that it is “unpopular in Nebraska.”
Fischer, who was elected to the state senate in 2004 and reelected in 2008, brings a solid, though hardly flawless, conservative record into the general-election campaign. As chair of the transportation committee and a member of the revenue committee, she’s a Lincoln insider.
According to a National Journal report, Fischer has supported an increase to the state’s gasoline tax and opposed efforts to cut state spending. During her tumultuous primary contest against state attorney general Jon Bruning and state treasurer Don Stenberg, Fischer was attacked on these issues late in the race. Bruning blasted her gas-tax support on the airwaves.
Fischer, buoyed by grassroots support, was able to sidestep the critique, and she emerged largely unblemished from the Bruning-Stenberg brawl. Norquist predicts that Democrats will revive those criticisms, but he doubts such attacks will damage her. “She is a classic Reagan Republican,” he says. “She’s perfectly pro-life, pro-gun, and she took the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” The gas tax, he cautions, isn’t the defining mark of her career.
Doug McAuliffe, Fischer’s media strategist, has a similar outlook. She has amassed a “strong conservative record,” he says, even in the state senate, where she has dealt with complicated appropriation issues for highways and roads. “This race is pretty simple. She’s the future, he’s the past.” If Kerrey wants to talk about taxes, he adds, Fischer welcomes the discussion, since Kerrey was the deciding vote on Clinton’s 1993 budget.
National Democrats also hope to make Fischer’s cattle ranch an issue. According to the Washington Post, the Fischer family’s business benefits from a federal program that leases grazing land at a substantial discount. It’s a perk that is not accessible to every rancher. In the Post, a senior Democratic staffer chided Fischer’s “sweetheart land deal” and her “hypocrisy.”
“I will address that issue if it comes up,” Fischer says, who insists her ranch’s arrangement passes muster because ranchers do not set the grazing rates. “Some people tried to push this as an issue in the primary. But Nebraska is an agricultural state where one of every three jobs is related to agriculture. People in this part of the country understand how federal land and grazing work.”
Former Virginia GOP congressman Tom Davis, who has closely followed the Senate race, says Fischer’s uncomplicated approach and strategy will probably lead to victory in November. Kerrey, he says, is the candidate who will be forced to squirm as the presidential election heats up and his closeness to Obama’s politics comes into the spotlight. He does not expect Kerrey’s attacks on Fischer to be persuasive.
“These races have become so parliamentary,” Davis says, where national political issues are the driving force, capable of lifting lesser-known candidates. “To get off that parliamentary track, you’ve got to be like Joe Manchin,” the West Virginia Democrat who has distanced himself from the president.
Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, bets that Kerrey will attempt to pivot toward the political center as Fischer gains in the polls. It may be a futile effort, he predicts, in a red state such as Nebraska, which has changed since Kerrey last ran for office in 1994.
“That was a different era,” Kondik says. “People were ticket-splitting then, and Kerrey won broad support. I don’t expect to see much of that, and this seat remains a likely Republican pickup.”
Representative Adrian Smith of Nebraska, who served with Fischer in the state legislature, is confident that his former colleague will be able to smoothly transition from the primary firefight to the battle with Kerrey. “She’s very capable,” he says. Kerrey’s congressional record, he reiterates, will haunt him, as will Kerrey’s decision to move to Greenwich Village after leaving the Senate. “Nebraskans tell me that they would have liked to have seen Kerrey come home,” he says.
Fischer will also benefit from Nebraska’s sprawling tea-party movement, which was split in the primary but appears ready to support her fully now, following a series of reconciliation meetings and phone calls. The endorsement of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has made the healing process easier, one Nebraska Republican official says — it gave Fischer a blessing of sorts.
“It’ll all come together for her,” says Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the founder of the House’s Tea Party Caucus. “When I first ran for office, no one thought that I had a chance in the primary, and no one thought that I had a chance in the general, and I went on to win. Deb Fischer has a clear path to victory, and conservatives there are uniting and working with her.”
Beltway Republicans are also scurrying to help Fischer ramp up her campaign. According to Politico, American Crossroads, an influential, Karl Rove–advised super PAC, is buying airtime on Nebraska TV stations in an effort to boost Fischer as voters start paying attention.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is also eager to help. This week it donated $43,000 to her campaign, which is the maximum direct contribution allowable under federal law. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the NRSC chairman, has also donated $5,000 from his leadership PAC.
That air support and capital is important, says former Republican senator David Karnes, whom Kerrey defeated in Nebraska’s 1988 Senate election. But the race will ultimately be about whether Nebraskans want to send Kerrey back to Washington. “You’ve got a woman from agriculture versus a senator from New York,” he chuckles. “In the past, Bob’s been successful because he talked about his public service instead of issues. That’s not going to happen this year. His record and his comments supporting the president will be front and center.”
For the moment, Fischer is scrambling to raise money. She drew wide support in the primary, winning 76 of Nebraska’s 93 counties, but her campaign account is small compared with Kerrey’s war chest. She’ll need the cash, because the race is already getting testy. On Wednesday, Kerrey attempted to cast himself as a populist by calling Fischer an ally of Charles and David Koch, two conservative philanthropists frequently caricatured by liberals. Retiring Nebraska senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat, echoed that Koch theme on a conference call with reporters.
Nebraska Republicans shrug off Kerrey’s heavy-handed Koch references. They point to a New York Times article from early May that reported on Kerrey’s wealthy fundraising network. According to the Times, Kerrey raked in more than $30,000 in donations over the past month from celebrities, bankers, and left-wing groups outside Nebraska. Hollywood favorite Barbra Streisand and former Morgan Stanley chairman S. Parker Gilbert are two of the many bigwigs who have donated to Kerrey.
“Nebraskans are really informed,” Fischer says. She knows that Kerrey’s past will be a hotly debated topic on the campaign trail, and she doesn’t shy away from that discussion. After running a “positive primary campaign,” though, she wants to do the same in the general. “I am going to focus on the policy issues, just like I did in the primary,” she says calmly. “As a committee chairman, I’m known for taking on tough policy issues, getting consensus, and getting things passed.”
Fischer grew up in Lincoln but moved to rural Valentine after “falling in love with a rancher,” Bruce Fischer, during her college days at the University of Nebraska. “My legislative district is the size of New Jersey,” she laughs. Valentine, however, is “very isolated,” and it takes nearly two hours in any direction to drive to a small city.
Running against Kerrey will have its challenges, Fischer says, but after an uphill primary and decades on a ranch, she feels ready. “Cosmic Bob,” back from the Big Apple, should be nervous.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.