Nebraska’s Deb Fischer hooked Senate seat with heartland values

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) — the only Republican to flip a Democratic Senate seat in last year’s election — was not even supposed to make it out of Nebraska’s GOP primary.

After her upset victory, she said people saw her incorrectly as “this little old lady that came out of nowhere.” The former state senator asserted that she had been an establishment candidate all along.

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“I would say the three of us were really kind of establishment candidates,” she said of herself and her two main primary opponents.

Fischer’s success in the race for a seat left open by former Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D) retirement stands in contrast to several other contests where conservative victories in GOP primaries led to a trouncing in the general election.

Karl Rove formed the Conservative Victory Project earlier this year in presumed response to those races. Its central mission is to prevent untested candidates from winning primaries and thus hindering the GOP’s chances in general election contests.

The Nebraska race was unique, Fischer said, and cannot be compared with those in Missouri and Indiana.

“I don’t think you can compare our race to other races. And it’s funny because after the primary, the Democrats tried to portray me as the Tea Party candidate, which was funny because I didn’t have a Tea Party endorsement.”

She received the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), and benefited from $200,000 in outside spending late in the primary from a super-PAC funded by Joe Ricketts, the conservative founder of TD Ameritrade, which is based in Nebraska.

But her two primary opponents gained the most attention early on.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning led by a double-digit margin throughout the primary and outraised Fischer by a 9-to-1 ratio.

Outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth and former Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed state treasurer Don Stenberg — who had run for the seat three times before — as their alternative.

The groups poured more than $2 million into the race, building up Stenberg and running negative ads against Bruning.  

Bruning never broke 50 percent in the polls, according to Fischer. She also held that voters were hungry for an alternative to Stenberg. She entered the race in mid-2011, after the state’s legislative session, and saw a path to victory from the start.

“I’m in the Legislature, and my opponents are out campaigning, and there is still no movement,” she said. “You could see that Nebraskans were looking for somebody else.”

She went on to crush former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) in the general election by 17 points in the heavily Republican state. 

Despite occasionally electing centrist Democrats like Nelson and Kerrey to statewide offices, Nebraska has voted for Republican presidential candidates since 1968. Mitt Romney beat President Obama by 22 points there in November.

Fischer dismisses questions about Rove’s move to sway Senate primaries, saying voters will ultimately make decisions for themselves. 

“I think the good citizens in any state understand their state better than the chattering class,” Fischer said.

Fischer enters the Senate as one of three newly elected Republicans. Senate Democrats defended 23 seats in 2012, successfully protecting every one but Fischer’s.

Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) — the other two freshman Republicans — won their elections defending seats left open by GOP retirements.

She is also one of a record number of 100 women to serve in the 113th Congress. Twenty-three of those are Republicans and 77 are Democrats.

Fischer said it would be nice if more female lawmakers ran for office but believes gender should not be the ultimate defining point. Her roots in the agriculture community in rural Nebraska are at least equally important in defining her character and values, she said.

“I have never done the gender thing,” she said. “I think your entire life experiences are what make us who we are.”

Republican leadership has already shined a spotlight on Fischer. She was the second lawmaker tapped to give the GOP weekly address, following House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) who staked out the major legislative goal of tax reform.

She acknowledged that her status as the lone female freshman in the Senate GOP conference and her win could have played a role in her selection — though she seemed at least a little uncomfortable doing so.

“It might have,” she said. “I would hope they chose me because I come from the legislative process.”

Fischer served eight years in the Nebraska state Legislature, the only unicameral and nonpartisan state body in the United States. In the state, the parties do not caucus or have assigned leadership.

“I can’t imagine someone telling me how to vote, because that never happened in Nebraska,” she said. “My constituents give me their opinions on how to vote and that continues to be my practice here.”