In a state that loves college football, Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer (R) is on the verge of pulling off the political equivalent of a fake punt as voters go to the polls today.
Up until about 11 days ago, Fischer was an also-ran perceived as using her Senate bid to build future credibility. It was nearly impossible for the lowly state legislator to get attention amid the brutal battle between the conservative establishment favorite, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, and the conservative anti-establishment’s pick, state Treasurer Don Stenberg.
But because that fight drove up the negatives on both men, a path to winning today’s GOP primary emerged for Fischer.
“It certainly seems to be tighter than anyone expected as late as two weeks ago,” said an unaligned GOP operative in the state.
Bruning’s ascent to the Senate has, at varying points this cycle, been a foregone conclusion. But that status also made him an easy target. The local press picked apart his business dealings, and Democratic trackers have documented him making questionable statements.
But what most Republicans point to as the reason for Bruning’s collapse as the frontrunner is the relentlessly negative ad campaign waged against him by the Club for Growth. The group ran ads to boost Stenberg, who was endorsed by many in the Washington, D.C.-based tea party community including Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.).
Stenberg, a perennial figure in Cornhusker politics, has run statewide several times and many sense voter fatigue with his name. As he and Bruning and their supporters slammed each other in ad campaigns in recent weeks, Fischer began to rise. Some attribute her situation to “pure luck.”
“She’s really run an under-the-radar-to-the-point-of-comatose campaign so far,” the unaligned Nebraska GOP operative said.
Quarter after quarter, Fischer struggled in credibility and fundraising. Her campaign constituted a staff of four. Her latest Federal Election Commission report showed she had raised a mere $61,000 in the last quarter. Her name identification was in the tank.
Even as late as last week, state operatives said that, at best, she’d place a healthy second. The scrappy effort meant she was setting herself up as a future star in the state party. But now, most Nebraska political watchers put the odds at even that she will beat both men for the GOP nomination to run for retiring Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D) seat.
Some are calling her quietly “relentless” on the ground and say it might compensate for her inability to engage in the campaign air war.
Fischer’s campaign said it began to sense momentum a few weeks ago but opted to keep the evidence under wraps so as not to tip off opponents. Then last week, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) endorsed Fischer. Both Palin and her husband, Todd, have done robocalls for Fischer in recent days. And over the weekend, wealthy Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts put money behind a third-party negative ad buy. Ricketts’ son Pete unsuccessfully challenged Nelson in 2006.
Few Nebraska Republicans point to the Palin nod as a game changer. But they say Palin’s backing and other late endorsements reinforced the perception that Fischer has momentum.
Several factors, including the Club for Growth’s negative advertising against Bruning, Palin’s endorsement of Fischer and Stenberg’s inability to capitalize on outside support, combined late to boost Fischer, some say. And she found her footing in a limited window when there was not enough time for the other candidates to retaliate with pervasive negative advertising.
But others say her surge happened too late. Bruning had an organized get-out-the-vote effort for early voting. There is speculation that he could lose Election Day but that the early vote tallies will put him over the top.
“We feel like we are in a very strong position,” Bruning media consultant Brooks Kochvar said when asked about the role of early voting. “We are the only campaign with an effective grass-roots organization engaged in the race.”
Yet many remained stunned. The knives are not out for Bruning and his team like they tend to be when frontrunners hit rocky ground just before Election Day. There is just a sense that the stars aligned to make his march to the nomination much more difficult.
“That’s a pedigree for success,” the unaligned Nebraska Republican added. “You’re going to have a lot of people scratching their heads if he doesn’t pull it off.”
Regardless of the nominee, both parties have been preparing for months for what could be a banner general election. Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey’s decision to run for his old job has made predictions that the GOP would flip this seat much less certain.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.