For the second time in as many weeks, an upstart candidate has shocked the establishment, only this time it comes as an even greater surprise. While Jon Bruning and Don Sternberg took turns beating up each other in the Nebraska primary for US Senate, state senator Deb Fischer stole a march on both and won handily, taking a “vast majority” of Nebraska counties:
State Sen. Deb Fischer won the Nebraska GOP Senate primary Tuesday in a stunning come-from-behind victory that seemed inconceivable just a few weeks ago. With 79 percent of precincts reporting, the Associated Press called the race, with Fischer leading Attorney General Jon Bruning 40 percent to 36 percent. Treasurer Don Stenberg was third with 19 percent.
Fischer advances to a general election contest with former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey. The Republican is favored in Nebraska, a red state in a presidential year.
Bruning was the frontrunner throughout the race, greatly outspending his two opponents (while Bruning ran over 20,000 gross rating points in the state, all non-Bruning spending combined amounted to under 18,000 gross rating points, according to a source tracking media buys in the state). But he and Stenberg — who was backed by conservative groups like Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund — had been attacking each other. Fischer, who was largely ignored until the end, appeared to benefit from the sniping between the two men.
In the final week of the race, Fischer started gaining momentum and accepted a high-profile endorsement from Sarah Palin, and then one from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb. A Super PAC boosted her with an ad during the final weekend of the primary.
Palin was ecstatic:
Sarah Palin congratulated Deb Fischer for her surprise victory in Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary Tuesday, hailing the state senator as an anti-establishment candidate with no ties to the “good old boys” club.
“As recently as a week ago, Deb Fischer was dismissed by the establishment. Why? Because she is not part of the good old boys’ permanent political class,” Palin said in a Facebook post early Wednesday. “The message from the people of Nebraska is simple and powerful: America is looking for real change in Washington, and commonsense conservatives like Deb Fischer represent that change.”
The win by Fischer shows that Palin’s endorsement power hasn’t waned over the last two years. On the other hand, Jim DeMint and a couple of well-known conservative action groups didn’t do as well:
— The candidates matter: In this race, neither a frontrunner hamstrung by ethics woes nor a yesterday’s news statewide officeholder bolstered by outside money — but running with an 0-3 Senate race record — was palatable to voters. Instead, a candidate with humble campaign coffers and a conservative message won.
— It was a bad night for the Club For Growth, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and FreedomWorks: The pro-Don Stenberg groups spent over $2 million combined. And for what? A distant third place finish for a well-known statewide official. The $2 million spent in Nebraska would be awfully useful in expensive Texas, where all three groups are backing Ted Cruz.
DeMint immediately backed Fischer after the election results showed her the winner, and called for Republican unity in the general election.
Fischer didn’t waste any time in pivoting to the general election, going after her Democratic opponent Bob Kerrey for carpetbagging after a dozen years of living in New York City:
She took her first poke at Kerrey shortly after taking the stage at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln in front of a crowd of jubilant supporters, many with tears in their eyes and some still in shock.
“We need somebody who’s different. Somebody who’s tough. Somebody who’s a Nebraskan,” said Fischer, 61, in a not-so-veiled reference to Kerrey having lived the last dozen years in New York City.
Aaron Blake at the Washington Post reports that Fischer already has a ten-point lead in polling over Kerrey, but she may have to work quickly to define herself in the race:
Republicans will now be faced with the fact that their candidate is largely undefined for the general election. While Fischer doesn’t come out of the primary with major liabilities — she was attacked for supporting a gas tax increase, though — she also has plenty of work to do in defining herself.
Regardless, Republicans are still heavily favored to hold the seat in the general election, owing largely to the state’s deep red hue and former senator Bob Kerrey (D) having left the state for a decade after leaving the Senate. A poll released Tuesday by Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed Fischer up 10 points on Kerry.
Kerrey has bigger problems in overcoming this than Fischer does in maintaining it, obviously, but the biggest problem is the anti-establishment mood in Nebraska. It doesn’t look like voters in the Cornhusker State are looking for party drones, especially after watching Ben Nelson reveal himself as just that in his cave on ObamaCare. Even if the voters may not know Fischer as well, they know enough about Kerrey and the Democrats to choose Fischer anyway.