State Sen. Deb Fischer (R) pulled off an upset victory Tuesday in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary, dealing a blow to both the Republican establishment and the Tea Party.
Fischer, a rural rancher who has never held statewide office, had long been written off in the race to replace retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). But Fischer turned the table on her two GOP opponents in the final week of the campaign despite being out-fundraised many times over.
Fischer will face former Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.), who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, in November.
For months, Bruning had a clear double-digit lead over Fischer and Stenberg. Few Republicans saw a realistic opportunity for Fischer to overtake Stenberg, and even fewer thought Fischer could pull off a first-place finish.
But in the waning days of the primary, polls showed major movement in Fischer’s direction, and Fischer said her grassroots efforts and positive campaign had finally paid off. Former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) and former presidential candidate Herman Cain waded into the race to back Fischer, and a super-PAC controlled by Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts pumped $200,000 into the race to support Fischer and attack Bruning.
Stenberg’s third-place finish was a bruising defeat for fiscal-conservative groups who backed him, including Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund. The Club spent more than $700,000 to attack Bruning, and DeMint’s PAC dropped more than $1.1 million on ads promoting Stenberg.
Meanwhile, Tea Party Express, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) all backed Bruning, who was widely considered the establishment candidate.
“We are pleased that Deb Fischer prevailed over Jon Bruning," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement. "The Club for Growth PAC identified Jon Bruning as the least dependable candidate on the principles of limited government and economic freedom, and we are happy that our focus on exposing his record was successful."
Stenberg responded to news of his loss by immediately vowing to back Fischer in the general election.
“It’s important that we have a Republican United States Senate to move our country in a new direction," he said.
In a last-minute plea to Nebraska voters on Tuesday, Bruning called himself a true conservative and the most viable general-election candidate in a last-minute plea to voters.
“I’m not afraid to stand up to the federal government when it oversteps its boundaries and I’m ready to take that fight to the United States Senate,” Bruning wrote in an email to supporters. “I will defeat Bob Kerrey in November and be your conservative voice in Washington.”
But supporters of both Bruning and Stenberg, who attacked each other relentlessly during the primary, said they would be comfortable with Fischer as the nominee and preferred her to the alternative.
"We wanted Stenberg to win, but Fischer was our second choice. The most important thing is that Jon Bruning lost," said DeMint spokesman Matt Hoskins. "He's not a conservative and his ethical problems could have cost Republicans the seat in November."
Republicans see Nelson’s seat as an almost certain pickup opportunity in November as they work to flip the four seats they need to reclaim the majority in the Senate (if President Obama is reelected).