It was a hard-fought race right up to the end, but when it was all over, the Republican who had been considered the long-shot in the race until the last few days clinched nomination for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska Tuesday night. With near-final returns in, State Sen. Deb Fischer, the “late bloomer,” upset long-presumed front-runner and State Attorney General Jon Bruning by a margin of 41 to 36 percent. State Treasurer Don Stenberg, once considered Bruning’s main rival, ran third with about 25 percent.
All three were considered conservative, albeit in different degrees and styles. But the primary drew national press attention and involvement from numerous outside organizations and politicians, among them three past GOP presidential hopefuls. In large part, this was because involvement in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary came with little risk. The winner, no matter who he or she was, would be considered a sure bet in the fall to pick up the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson.
Almost universally, polls showed any of the three Republicans handily defeating Democratic nominee and former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who has voted, paid taxes, and lived in Manhattan since retiring from the Senate in 2000.
By all accounts, Fischer will become the Cornhusker State’s first female senator since fellow Republican Hazel H. Abel, who filled out a Senate term for two months in 1954.
Although Fischer’s backing from Sarah Palin and Herman Cain in the close of the campaign certainly drew notice, the 61-year-old legislator—while certainly a social conservative–was no tea partier. As blogosphere political pundit Matt Lewis wrote in the Daily Caller, “I wonder if Palin realizes that in 2008, Fischer voted “yes” on LB 959, which included a $14.5 million appropriation for road-building, funded by gas tax hike. (Gov. Dave Heinemann line-item vetoed the tax hike, and decreased road funding by the $14 million that tax hike would have collected. Fischer then voted to override the veto.” — a move that only delays tax increases.”
Her strength as a candidate largely came from her being the outsider in a race where her two opponents in effect waged war on one another.
An outsider, but no tea partier
Bruning had originally hoped to run for the seat of then-GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel in ’08, but deferred to former Gov. (and now Sen.) Mike Johanns after Hagel announced he was retiring. This time, Bruning was backed by much of the state party organization, as well as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
Stenberg, who had waged three previous Senate races, hit Bruning hard on issues ranging from his vote to increase the state sales tax while a state senator to kind words he had said about Attorney General Eric Holder to an article he had written while in law school criticizing Ronald Reagan. Backing Stenberg in his campaign were Freedomworks, the Club for Growth, and Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Ut.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.).
But in the closing weeks of the campaign, it was Fischer who seemed to be creeping up on the front-runner. In just the last week, she picked up the endorsements of the conservative ShePAC, as well as Palin and Cain. Just as helpful to Fischer were the television salvos launched against Bruning by “Ending Spending,” the SuperPAC headed by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. Among other things, the spots focused on charges that Bruning had become wealthy while attorney general. One Omaha Republican noted that the attorney general had simply invested well and broke no laws and, “had Jon crossed the line, you know the Omaha World Herald—owned by one Warren Buffett—would have been all over him.”
Perhaps the most succinct post-mortem on the contest came from one of the “wise men” of state Republican politics. Speaking to HUMAN EVENTS shortly after Fischer was called the winner, Hal Daub—who has been Omaha mayor, U.S. Representative and GOP National Committeeman—concluded: “Club for Growth and other groups certainly succeeded in their attacks on Jon Bruning but these did not translate into votes for their favorite candidate, Don Stenberg. Rather, they went to the candidate who stayed positive and outside the fire—Deb Fischer.”