May 18, 2012

Deb Fischer, a conservative state senator, shocked the political world on Tuesday by beating two better-financed opponents in Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary. She now faces Bob Kerrey, a former governor and senator, in the general election. In most statewide races, Fischer’s low profile would be a handicap, but in this particular contest, anonymity may be an asset.

Fischer says that people are tired of the usual politicians. “I am becoming better known, and I’ve put 45,000 miles on my car as I’ve traveled around the state. But I come from a citizen legislature, where it’s about public service, and people have really responded.”

A decade in the political wilderness has done little to boost Kerrey, whose quirky personality led detractors to dub him “Cosmic Bob” during the Clinton years. According to Public Policy Polling, a majority of Nebraskans view him unfavorably, and the Democrat’s post-Senate stint as an academic administrator at the uber-liberal New School in Manhattan has won him few plaudits.

Senator Mike Johanns, a former governor, urges Fischer to remind voters about Kerrey’s aversion to “mainstream Nebraska thinking.” On key issues, such as cap-and-trade legislation, Obamacare, traditional marriage, and abortion, “he’s way out there,” Johanns says.

But Kerrey’s problems may go beyond policy. Nineteen years ago, irritated by the swarm of reporters pestering him about an upcoming vote, Kerrey memorably strolled to a local movie theater to see a Tina Turner biopic, alone, as President Bill Clinton’s economic plan was being whipped.

GOP operatives recall that episode, one of many instances of eccentric behavior, as an example of how Kerrey’s persona may be a factor, albeit a quieter one than others. Most Nebraskans respect Kerrey, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, for his service, but his reputation as a flaky progressive has calcified.

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform says that he’s a competent guy, but he’s done surprisingly poorly in the polls. Yet he noted: “It’s just too obvious that he has become a New Yorker.”

Brian Baker, the president of Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC and one of Fischer’s biggest primary backers, agrees. One of his organization’s most potent pro-Fischer ads, he says, used the tagline “one of us,” and touted her “outsider” credentials and ranching background.

“That ad encapsulated this race,” Baker says. “She’s a fresh face running against someone who has been out of Nebraska for ten years. When people learn about her, they connect with her.”

In her election-night speech on Tuesday, Fischer alluded to Kerrey’s chief vulnerability. “We don’t need the same type of person,” she said.“We need somebody different, somebody who’s tough, somebody who’s effective, and somebody who’s a Nebraskan.”

John Hibbing, a political-science professor at the University of Nebraska doesn't think Fischer not going to run an aggressively negative campaign, but that kind of sly remark will continue.  He noted that Kerrey’s liberal positions are not consistent with the ethos of this conservative state. Fischer is untested in statewide elections, but sometimes it’s enough to be a Republican without baggage.

A new Rasmussen poll of likely Nebraska voters, conducted after Fischer’s primary win, shows her leading Kerrey, 56 percent to 38 percent. Kerrey’s inability to climb above 40 percent should worry Democrats. Since Rasmussen last conducted a head-to-head poll in March, Fischer’s support has jumped 10 points; Kerrey, for his part, has hovered for months in the mid-30s.

Sensing trouble, Kerrey hit the trail hard this week, pledging to be a moderate Democrat if he wins back his former seat. “I am not going to be a reliable vote for the Democratic caucus,” he told a South Sioux City, Neb., crowd, according to the Sioux City Journal. Speaking about Obamacare, he reiterated his support, but he acknowledged that it is “unpopular in Nebraska.”

Fischer, who was elected to the state senate in 2004 and reelected in 2008, brings a solid, though hardly flawless, conservative record into the general-election campaign. As chair of the transportation committee and a member of the revenue committee, she’s a Lincoln insider.

According to a National Journal report, Fischer has supported an increase to the state’s gasoline tax and opposed efforts to cut state spending. During her tumultuous primary contest against state attorney general Jon Bruning and state treasurer Don Stenberg, Fischer was attacked on these issues late in the race. Bruning blasted her gas-tax support on the airwaves.

Fischer, buoyed by grassroots support, was able to sidestep the critique, and she emerged largely unblemished from the Bruning-Stenberg brawl. Norquist predicts that Democrats will revive those criticisms, but he doubts such attacks will damage her. “She is a classic Reagan Republican,” he says. “She’s perfectly pro-life, pro-gun, and she took the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” The gas tax, he cautions, isn’t the defining mark of her career.

Doug McAuliffe, Fischer’s media strategist, has a similar outlook. She has amassed a “strong conservative record,” he says, even in the state senate, where she has dealt with complicated appropriation issues for highways and roads. “This race is pretty simple. She’s the future, he’s the past.” If Kerrey wants to talk about taxes, he adds, Fischer welcomes the discussion, since Kerrey was the deciding vote on Clinton’s 1993 budget.

National Democrats also hope to make Fischer’s cattle ranch an issue. According to the Washington Post, the Fischer family’s business benefits from a federal program that leases grazing land at a substantial discount. It’s a perk that is not accessible to every rancher. In the Post, a senior Democratic staffer chided Fischer’s “sweetheart land deal” and her “hypocrisy.”

Fischer’s uncomplicated approach and strategy will probably lead to victory in November. Kerrey after all is the candidate who will be forced to squirm as the presidential election heats up and his closeness to Obama’s politics comes into the spotlight. He does not expect Kerrey’s attacks on Fischer to be persuasive.

Kerrey’s congressional record, he reiterates, will haunt him, as will Kerrey’s decision to move to Greenwich Village after leaving the Senate.

Fischer will also benefit from Nebraska’s sprawling tea-party movement, which was split in the primary but appears ready to support her fully now, following a series of reconciliation meetings and phone calls. The endorsement of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has made the healing process easier, one Nebraska Republican official says — it gave Fischer a blessing of sorts.

Beltway Republicans are also scurrying to help Fischer ramp up her campaign. According to Politico, American Crossroads, an influential, Karl Rove–advised super PAC, is buying airtime on Nebraska TV stations in an effort to boost Fischer as voters start paying attention.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is also eager to help. This week it donated $43,000 to her campaign, which is the maximum direct contribution allowable under federal law. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the NRSC chairman, has also donated $5,000 from his leadership PAC.

For the moment, Fischer is scrambling to raise money. She drew wide support in the primary, winning 76 of Nebraska’s 93 counties, but her campaign account is small compared with Kerrey’s war chest. She’ll need the cash, because the race is already getting testy.

Running against Kerrey will have its challenges, Fischer says, but after an uphill primary and decades on a ranch, she feels ready. “Cosmic Bob,” back from the Big Apple, should be nervous.