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Bob Kerrey’s Worst Nightmare

Deb Fischer is running away with the Senate race in Nebraska.

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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North Platte, Neb.
Deb Fischer will very likely be the next U.S. senator from Nebraska. The latest survey of the race to replace retiring Democrat Ben Nelson shows Fischer 20 points ahead of her Democratic opponent, Bob Kerrey. In fact, the Republican has led Kerrey by double digits in every poll taken since March. To end the reign of Harry Reid, Republicans need a net gain of at least four Senate seats this November, and Fischer is the GOP’s best opportunity to flip a Democratic seat.

Deb Fischer

AP Nat Harnik

That’s probably no surprise to Fischer—she’s used to getting her way.

A 61-year-old state legislator and rancher from Valentine, Fischer had been running last in a three-way race just weeks before the May Republican primary. State attorney general Jon Bruning was the establishment favorite and the frontrunner, while the Tea Party rallied around state treasurer and Nebraska GOP mainstay Don Stenberg. Fischer was cast as an also-ran, beginning the campaign with little name recognition outside rural Nebraska. It’s true that Fischer received a high-profile, eleventh-hour endorsement from Sarah Palin. And Nebraska businessman Joe Ricketts’s $250,000 anti-Bruning TV ad buy came just as she was gaining momentum. But in the end, it may have been Fischer’s straightforward, no-nonsense approach that made the difference.

“I think people admire me for my honesty,” Fischer says in an interview.

Pat Dorwart, a former GOP committeewoman who has mentored the state’s female Republican candidates for decades, says Fischer reminds her of Virginia Smith, the only Nebraska woman ever elected to Congress.

“She’s traveled all of Nebraska,” says Dorwart. “She told me she was going to work harder than anyone else in the race.”

“She really surprised me on the campaign trail,” says Craig Safranek, a Republican activist from Broken Bow. “She was very thoughtful, very knowledgeable.”

Republican lieutenant governor Rick Sheehy says he realized Fischer would win the primary long before the polls showed her gaining ground on Bruning. “I had a lot of people tell me, ‘Jon’s going to win it, but I’m voting for Deb,’ ” Sheehy says.

While easterners Bruning and Stenberg wasted time and precious resources traveling to campaign in distant rural communities in the west, Fischer, having consolidated her rural base, spent the final months of the primary crisscrossing the more urbanized eastern third of the state. She ran positive advertisements, too, improving her standing with voters exhausted by the negative ad war between her Republican opponents. Fischer calls her strategy “slow and steady,” and it worked. She trounced Stenberg and beat Bruning, who outspent Fischer eight to one, by 10,000 votes.

“People who underestimate Deb Fischer do so at their own peril,” says Carlos Castillo, a GOP operative in Omaha. “She’s one tough cookie.”

Nebraska Republicans say Fischer will likely stick to the same strategy in the general election: positive ads, retail politics, and a steady focus. She’s been bolstered by a relatively lackluster campaign from Kerrey, a Nebraska political legend who received the Congressional Medal of Honor before becoming a popular governor and senator. But after Kerrey left the Senate in 2001, he moved to New York City to serve as president of the New School, a progressive university in Greenwich Village. Persuaded by national Democrats to run for his old Senate seat, Kerrey has returned to a Nebraska that’s more Republican than it was when he left. It didn’t help when Kerrey reaffirmed his support for Obamacare, the unpopular law that doomed Ben Nelson’s reelection. Kerrey has most recently taken to calling Fischer a “welfare rancher,” since her family leases federal grazing land. That attack hasn’t stuck, and while Fischer says she expects the race to tighten before November, she doesn’t seem too worried about a surge in support for Kerrey.

“People are angry he’s back” from New York, Fischer says. Her campaign ads make the not-so-subtle counterpoint: “Deb Fischer, a Nebraska senator,” says the voiceover.

But it’s also clear Fischer’s earning her high poll numbers. On the trail, she’s modest and unassuming. She looks more comfortable talking with folks in the back of a crowd than speechifying in front of one. At a factory groundbreaking in Lexington, Fischer stood out in the hot sun and strong winds, shaking hands and telling jokes, until nearly every person had left. Nebraska’s a large state, but Fischer does at least three or four events daily, driving several hours and hundreds of miles. On the interstate en route to a building dedication in North Platte, her blue Ford SUV zooms near. Spotting me in the right lane, she smiles and waves from the passenger seat before popping a French fry in her mouth. 

“I like the fact that she’s real,” says Linette Butler, a supporter from Kearney. “Down to earth,” say others.

Pat Dorwart gets to the heart of Fischer’s Cornhusker State appeal. “She just thinks like Nebraskans,” she says.

Debra Strobel was born in Lincoln to a civil engineer father and a schoolteacher mother. She’s 100 percent German and was raised Lutheran, though she attends a Presbyterian church now. She met Bruce Fischer, a third-generation cattle rancher from rural Cherry County, at the University of Nebraska. In 1972, she dropped out to marry him and moved to Valentine to become a rancher.

“You’re young, you’re in love, and it’s a wonderful place to live,” Fischer says. “It’s been a wonderful place to raise a family.” The Fischers have three grown sons, all of whom work on the ranch.

Fischer says she’s wanted to be involved in public policymaking since junior high school. Her political career began in 1979 when she was elected to the local school board. Over the course of 20 years, she was a member of a few school boards and eventually president of the state’s school board association. In 2004, Fischer ran successfully for Nebraska’s nonpartisan, unicameral legislature, and she was reelected in 2008.

Fischer calls herself a pro-life, limited government conservative. She’s for repealing Obamacare, opposes No Child Left Behind, and says she’s “happy” that Mitt Romney appears serious about addressing entitlement spending—though she quickly adds she doesn’t support cutting benefits to current retirees. When asked why she’s a conservative, she pauses, as if she had never considered the question before.

“It’s who I am,” she finally says, matter-of-factly.

In Lincoln, Fischer has earned a reputation as an effective legislator. Craig Sefranek calls Fischer a “negotiator” and says she’s succeeded in the legislature because she works well with Democrats. “She talks soft but carries a big stick,” Sefranek says. 

When Fischer hears this, she laughs. “I’m surprised someone thinks I talk softly!”

Mike Flood, the speaker of the legislature and a close friend, recalls Fischer’s proposal last year to move money from the general fund to shore up the state’s budget for much-needed highway improvement. The bill faced significant pushback from several Democrats, and the debate looked to be heading toward a stalemate. “Deb talked to everyone,” Flood says, and soon enough, she had the votes. Today, orange cones line Interstate 80 for miles as construction crews work to widen the highway.

Fischer is characteristically blunt about her influence.

“Yeah, I get stuff done,” she says. She takes pride in the fact that in her nearly eight years as a legislator, she hasn’t held one press conference.

“I believe you have to develop relationships,” Fischer says. “I don’t believe you need to have a press conference to get something done.”

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

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