Nebraska held their primaries Tuesday, and there was a major upset: a little-known rancher and State Senator in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature won out over two establishment Republican candidates.
State Senator Deb Fischer (R-Valentine, NE) easily won a three-way contest, with 41 percent of the vote. Former front-runner Attorney General Jon Bruning was second with 36 percent, and State Treasurer Don Stenberg was third with 19 percent.
Bruning staked out a position far to the right of the political spectrum. For example, he publicly attacked the supposed “Unconstitutional Assault on Religious Liberty” represented by a 12-year-old rule based on a 33-year-old law supposedly “requiring” religious organizations to cover contraception. I’ve written before (here and here) about the corrupt and cynical position taken by major Republican lawmakers on this issue.
Apparently, Bruning was still too much of a socialist running dog for Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and the Club for Growth, both of whom poured a huge amount of money into Stenberg’s campaign. According to them, Stenberg, who served as State Attorney General for 12 years, is a “genuine, lifelong conservative” who is concerned that we need to “Take Back America” [sic] from socialist running dog Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE). Nelson is apparently even more socialist, a faster runner, and more canine than socialist running dogs like Bruning.
Despite an endorsement from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and buckets of spending cash, Stenberg stumbled badly. He received $1.4 million from the Senate Conservatives Fund PAC (controlled by DeMint) and $722,000 from the Club for Growth — huge amounts of money in a state with just a few, inexpensive media markets. In spite of this — or perhaps because of it — Stenberg’s genuine, lifelong conservative message failed to resonate with voters in a deeply conservative state.
Nebraska has a Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of R+13, tying it (with Alabama and Alaska) for fifth place among the most Republican states. (Utah and Wyoming are R+20; Oklahoma and Idaho are R+17.) It would seem that Nebraska would be a fertile ground for a Tea Party– and Club for Growth-supported candidate like Stenberg.
DeMint’s ultimately fruitless spending spree produced a rare and especially bitter rebuke from his colleague, Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE):
The question I’d get asked as I get around the state: ‘Who is this guy [DeMint] and why he is spending this money to elect people in our state?’ … I just think it was a poor choice of strategy. I don’t think they understood the state. People hate that kind of stuff in our state, and so they recoiled, they looked for an alternative.
DeMint was unapologetic as he turned the attack on the socialist running dog RINO Bruning, who apparently is a “bad” conservative, not a “good” conservative:
The whole establishment here was for Bruning. If we were going to get a good conservative out of Nebraska, we had to get involved. If we hadn’t, Bruning would be the nominee.
I’ve written about über-conservative overreach in reddest Utah. Two states don’t make a trend, but it is interesting that both Utah and Nebraska seem to be trending toward unheralded female outsider candidates in Republican caucuses and primaries. One could put South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, elected in 2010, in the same category. (Haley has only a 38 percent approval rating among South Carolinians, but the state legislature has an even lower approval. Sound familiar?) Both Fischer and Haley were endorsed by Sarah Palin.
Still, Politico’s Manu Raju quoted Nebraska political observers as saying Bruning was the most moderate of the three Republicans in the race, an observation which seems to be supported by their public positions on the issues.
Now the Democratic candidate, former Senator, former Governor, and former third-tier Presidential candidate Bob Kerrey, has a real fight on his hands. Voters thus far seem to be rejecting his image as a professional politician choosing Bruning’s relative inexperience over Kerrey’s thick résumé. The only recent polling from the Bruning-Kerrey race since Tuesday is from Rasmussen Reports, who puts Fischer at 56 percent and Kerrey at 38 percent, an 18-point advantage for the insurgent. Older Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen polls have Fischer at ten or 12 points over Kerrey, so she may be getting a bump from her primary win. Even accounting for Rasmussen’s house bias, that’s a substantial lead for a relative unknown and indicates that Kerrey’s unfavorables may be too strong for him to overcome.
Fischer, on the other hand, is well-respected. Valentine, where she owns and manages a ranch, is in rural north central Nebraska, near the South Dakota border. She has a sense of humor, as evinced by her endorsement of an unofficial primary campaign slogan:
More fun than Don, safer than Jon — vote Deb Fischer for Senate.
Even Democrats take her seriously. For example, Democratic leader (and Valentine neighbor) Bud Pettigrew says of her:
She’s smart, she’s tough. She can work, she’ll work it hard. She gets her bills through, she’s respected. She’s tea party, but she won’t say dumb things. I don’t think she’s always the nicest person, but she’s tough. I respect her.
Barring a strong Kerrey comeback, expect a Republican pickup of this seat. The Democrats’ already tough path to holding on to Senate control just got a little tougher.
Note: Fischer was mis-identified as “Bruning” in both the photo caption and the Palin endorsement. I have fixed those now. Sorry for the errors.
- Palin-backed candidate Deb Fischer surging in Nebraska Senate primary (thehill.com)
- Nebraska Repubican Primary Picks Tea Party Candidate (lezgetreal.com)
- Nebraska Woman surprises the Pundits (skydancingblog.com)
- Open thread: The Nebraska GOP Senate primary (hotair.com)
- Republican Fischer upsets rivals in Nebraska Senate primary (nbcpolitics.msnbc.msn.com)
- Daily Kos Elections Idaho, Nebraska and Oregon primary preview (dailykos.com)
- DeMint fueled Lugar fight (politico.com)
- In Nebraska, A Fight for Tea Party Mantle (abcnews.go.com)
- Little-Known Lawmaker Upsets GOP’s Senate Plans In Nebraska — NPR (blog) (npr.org)