The Magazine

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.

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