Nebraska Senate: Republicans Still Favored, Just With Unexpected Nominee

by Jessica Taylor May 16, 2012 · 1:07 PM EDT

In the end, it was neither the establishment candidate nor the anti-establishment candidate who can claim victory in the GOP Senate primary in Nebraska.

State Sen. Deb Fischer took 41 percent of the vote on Tuesday to win the Republican nomination and will face former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) in the general election race to succeed retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D). Attorney General Jon Bruning took 36 percent of the vote, while state Treasurer Don Stenberg drew only 19 percent.

For much of the race, Fischer was plagued by poor fundraising and never seemed to gain much traction until the race’s final days, when automated polling and her own internal surveys showed her within striking distance.

While Bruning was seen as the frontrunner for virtually the entire race, some big-name conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, were opposed to the three-term attorney general and looked to be helping Stenberg, who had lost three previous Senate races. The negative ads against Bruning and the lack of traction toward Stenberg in their negative contest allowed Fischer to slip through. Additionally, allies for Fischer (including Sarah Palin and Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry) came in late and somewhat under the radar.

According to Nebraska observers, Stenberg’s appeal was always limited and Bruning’s support was sizable but soft, so once Fischer gained visibility, she became a credible alternative for voters. Chicago Cubs co-owner Joe Ricketts, father of state party chairman Pete Ricketts, spent $200,000 on last-minute ads for Fischer and likely pushed wavering Bruning voters into the state senator’s column in the final days.

Also, Bruning’s campaign appeared to focus on the more densely populated areas such as Omaha. But those areas also have lower voter turnout, and Fischer was more than able to compensate for Bruning’s margins there by focusing on the more rural counties that turn out in higher numbers.

Democrats successfully wooed Kerrey into the race (and back into the state), hoping the former lawmaker would have the crossover appeal he once had. But after living in New York City and voicing support for President Obama’s health care reform bill, Kerrey looks nothing more than a long-shot in a state that has trended more and more toward the GOP since he left office more than a decade ago.

Fischer is a relative unknown quantity who will have to adjust to the larger stage of a Senate race, but she’s an experienced politician (she’s held local and state office for 30 years) and doesn’t have nearly the same baggage that Bruning would have carried to the general election. Former governor Kay Orr and former congressman John Y. McCollister co-chaired Fischer’s campaign.

During an interview with the Rothenberg Political Report in early December, Fischer called herself “very conservative” (and 100% pro-life), but she emphasized, “I am a policy person. I like to work on policy.” Her style is not confrontational.

A Democratic poll, conducted in late March by Public Policy Polling (IVR), showed Fischer leading Kerrey 48 percent to 38 percent in a general election ballot test. Because of Kerrey’s candidacy, Republicans can’t ignore the race. But Fischer is the prohibitive favorite, and we reiterate our rating of Republican Favored and remain deeply skeptical that the general election will be a truly competitive race.

In congressional primaries Tuesday night, incumbents Nebraska, Idaho and Oregon were easily renominated. Through 12 states, 93 of 95 House incumbents have been renominated in non-member versus member races. None of the states are expected to feature competitive races this fall either.

Just one week after conservative groups claimed victory in the Indiana primary, toppling longtime Sen. Dick Lugar, they came up short in Nebraska. Typically, such groups have been able to employ a relatively successful strategy -- burying establishment conservatives with an organized onslaught -- that has worked better both this year and in recent elections when it’s a one-on-one race. The three way nature of the Nebraska primary allowed Fischer to remain above the fray, making her the unintended beneficiary.

The Club for Growth was quick to argue that it accomplished its goal of defeating Bruning. In a statement that never mentioned Stenberg, the influential anti-tax group signaled it was “encouraged by the strong pro-growth stands [Fischer] took in this campaign.”

A similar dynamic could play out in other upcoming GOP primaries in which the Club and DeMint are playing. The next test is in two weeks in Texas, where both are backing former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz over frontrunner Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. With the race likely headed toward a runoff with Dewhurst atop the field, it’s former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert who observers believe has the momentum in the closing days, after Dewhurst and his allies have pummelled the underfunded Cruz on air.

In the wake of Nebraska, the Club upped its investment in the Lone Star State to $2 million (which doesn’t stretch as far in Texas) as it continues to attack Dewhurst as a “moderate.”

Wisconsin’s August primary is still months away, but it could follow the same path as Nebraska (and possibly Texas). Conservative groups have made former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the state’s best known Republican, their public enemy number one, choosing to rally behind former Rep. Mark Neumann. Wealthy investor Eric Hovde has thrown a wrench into the race, spending millions already on TV ads to boost his name ID, but underfunded state House Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald received the most support at last week’s convention. While confrontational conservative groups may be successful in knocking down Thompson, Neumann ultimately may not turn out to be the beneficiary of those attacks.