By Josh Lederman - 05/15/12 09:00 AM EDT
An establishment candidate, a favorite of Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) and a candidate backed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) square off Tuesday in a GOP primary for Nebraska’s open Senate seat.
All eyes are on Deb Fischer, a Republican state senator and Palin’s pick for the seat, whose underdog campaign appears to have surged past her rivals’ in the final days before the primary.
But a series of last-minute surveys shows Fischer surging despite her shoestring campaign and millions of dollars in ads that Bruning, Stenberg and their allies have aired. A survey released Monday by independent firm We Ask America showed Fischer pulling into first place, taking 39 percent to Bruning’s 34 and Stenberg’s 18.
“Nebraska’s got a pretty good record of supporting underdogs. [Sen.] Mike Johanns [R-Neb.] was an underdog,” Fischer told The Hill.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face former Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.), who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. Democrats in Washington recruited Kerrey, a two-term senator who also served as Nebraska’s governor, to try to hold on to the seat that retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is vacating.
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).
The race has attracted interest from outside groups, including the Tea Party Express and Citizens United, both of which have backed Bruning. Almost $3 million in independent expenditures has been dropped on the race — more than almost any other Senate race, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Although Bruning has been out-raising his GOP opponents and has the implicit support of the Republican establishment, he also has the most glaring vulnerabilities, according to his opponents in both parties. Bruning has been accused of greenlighting grants to a farm group that donated to his campaign days later and of releasing a student-loan company from a $1 million settlement despite co-owning a home with officials from the company.
“It’s going to come down to: Do Nebraskans want to send the same type of career politician back to Washington?” said Fischer. “Jon seems to be particularly establishment. I’m running a grassroots campaign.”
Highlighting the unlikely momentum Fischer has picked up in the waning days of the primary, a super-PAC controlled by Chicago Cubs co-owner Joe Ricketts pumped $200,000 into ads backing Fischer in the weekend before the primary.
Because the ad used the same footage as one of Fischer’s spots, Bruning’s campaign said the ads ran afoul of campaign laws barring super-PACs from coordinating with campaigns.
“This is a last-minute effort to distort the facts,” said Trent Fellers, Bruning’s campaign manager. “The truth is, Deb Fischer cannot defend her record of tax increases and more spending in the Legislature.”
But they pushed back against her claims to be a fiscal hardliner bucking the establishment, noting that as the chairwoman of the state Senate’s transportation committee, she’s played a prominent role in doling out government cash.
For those who see Stenberg as the truest conservative on fiscal issues, the main concern is that Fischer and Stenberg could split the conservative vote, handing Bruning a victory with less than 50 percent.
“Voters in Nebraska are running away from Jon Bruning, the establishment candidate, and going to Don Stenberg and Deb Fischer, the conservative candidates,” said Matt Hoskins, a spokesman for DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund. “There are still a lot of undecided voters, so anyone could win.”
For Kerrey’s team, the best outcome for Tuesday’s primary would be for Bruning to eke out a win, giving them a general-election match-up against the candidate whose ethics and record they feel they have the strongest opportunity to challenge, according to a source with knowledge of the campaign.
“We can’t be sure who they’ll elect,” Kerrey wrote Monday in a fundraising pitch to supporters. “But we do know this: Whoever gets elected will be a radical Tea Partier with extreme ideas for our country’s future.”