Meet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska

Meet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska
© Greg Nash

When you say “Nebraska,” you think “Republican.”

The last time that Democrats elected one of their own to the U.S. Senate was 2006. That was the year incumbent Ben Nelson was re-elected. But, by 2012, Nelson was so unpopular in the state that he decided not to even run for another term.

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Democrat Bob Kerrey, the state’s former governor and two-term U.S. senator, stepped forward and got trounced by Republican Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerErnst, Fischer to square off for leadership post McConnell will ask Cornyn to stay on GOP leadership team Graham downplays need for bill reining in Trump on tariffs after White House meeting MORE. Kerrey had left the state for some time but, still, Fischer — who wasn’t even supposed to win her own GOP primary — beat the charismatic former presidential aspirant by a whopping 16 points.

 

In a 2014 Senate race, Republican Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Defiant Trump meets with House GOP amid border blowback Sasse: Trump should end 'wicked' family separation policy MORE beat Democrat Dave Domina by 33 points. In 2008, Republican Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Farmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World MORE defeated Democrat Scott Kleeb by 18 points.

One additional fact that proves how red a state Nebraska is: It was the last state Bill Clinton visited in his eight years as president — on Dec. 15, 2000.

Yet, in 2018, Democrats in the Cornhusker State think they might pull an upset. They believe they have a candidate who might slip up on the low-profile Republican incumbent to win an improbable and unexpected victory. 

Jane Raybould is presently a Lincoln City Council member; before that, she was the sole Democrat on the Lancaster County Commission. She serves as a vice president of a grocery business that her father started 53 years ago; the company, B&R Stores Inc., has 19 locations in the state and 2,000 employees. This identity she touts as a distinct plus. 

Raybould says that “first and foremost, I’m a businesswoman and a job creator.” Above all, she stresses that she will be an “independent voice.” She believes in “bipartisan solutions” and “built my political career on commonalities, collaboration, cooperation and using the word ‘compromise.’ ” 

Yet, at the same time, she is definitely pro-choice and is against assault weapons. In a pro-gun rights state, she goes even further by stating she would “never take a dime from the NRA.”

As for her possible future relationship with the president, she says she “would work with President TrumpDonald John TrumpConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary Trump defends Nielsen amid criticism over family separations MORE but I will call him out for things that are not in the best interest of the state or the nation.”

In a nod to campaign finance reform, she pledges not to take any money from corporate PACs. 

Raybould has a primary on May 15. But everyone expects her to be the Democrat nominee. Her hopes are buoyed by a poll taken by Public Policy Polling in November of last year; the poll showed that only 35 percent of Nebraska voters believe incumbent Deb Fischer should be re-elected, and 45 percent disapprove of Fischer. On the downside for the challenger is that 71 percent of Nebraska voters don’t know Raybould’s name. 

Raybould calls the incumbent a “Washington Republican.” That’s not meant to be a compliment.

Fischer, although not very visible on the national scene, is not to be underestimated. Democrats compose only about one-third of registered voters in Nebraska. Fischer, in 2012, was the only Republican to pick up a seat previously held by a Democrat. Her conservative credentials are strong. 

In the 2012 primary, she was endorsed by Sarah Palin. Fischer rejects any attempts to restrict access for gun purchases; she also tries to paint Raybould as not Nebraska enough. 

One of her avid supporters, Jaclyn Wilson, a cattleman from Lakeside, reminds voters that Raybould “spent two decades in Washington.” (Raybould has a masters from Georgetown University and worked for the D.C. Building Industry Association.)

Fischer is a fervent believer in term limits. She is for serving only two terms in the Senate, so, presumably, this would be her final term.

Raybould obviously believes Fischer is vulnerable. Even though this state in the middle of the country is considered reliably red, Raybould is running with the hope that the national GOP will take this one for granted and she will pull a surprise while they are focusing elsewhere. 

If she’s at all correct, this race in Nebraska might just be the Democratic sleeper. 

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics. He previously was the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, and for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station. He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.