As Republicans sought to interpret Deb Fischer’s upset victory in Tuesday’s Nebraska Senate primary and what it portends for the 2012 elections, Sen. Mike Johanns (R) told Roll Call that the third-party groups who spent heavily to boost Don Stenberg are responsible for his last-place finish.
Johanns, a former Nebraska governor, said the Club for Growth’s television ad campaign that targeted frontrunner Jon Bruning, the state attorney general, was “tone deaf” and left Nebraska GOP primary voters with an overwhelmingly negative impression of Stenberg, the state treasurer. Johanns referred to Stenberg as a “true blue conservative” who has a solid base of support in Nebraska and should have finished with at least around 35 percent of the vote. Bruning, who fought back against with negative attacks of his own, was also damaged in the fray.
“In a state like Nebraska, when the dirt starts flying, those throwing the dirt are going to get dirty too. It not only cost Bruning, it cost Stenberg significantly,” Johanns said this morning in a telephone interview. “It was an error in strategy.”
Johanns said Stenberg’s outside support damaged his candidacy such that even the extensive positive ad campaign run on his behalf by Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund was viewed by voters as being a part of the negative air war run to damage Bruning, who finished second in the three-way contest. Johanns said Stenberg “stalled, and then his numbers started to go backward” from the moment the Club for Growth and other outside groups entered the race.
Nebraska’s junior Senator expressed sympathy for Stenberg and dismissed claims by the club — made in a statement released following Fischer’s victory — that it succeeded in the Cornhusker State primary because defeating Bruning was its main goal. In a statement, Club for Growth President Chris Chocola congratulated Fischer for defeating Bruning but made no mention of Stenberg.
“I feel bad for Don because he is a good guy that worked hard and beat his brains out trying to put this Senate race together. But at the end of the day I really think [the outside groups] hurt,” Johanns said. “The club came to Nebraska to elect Don Stenberg. Deb Fischer wasn’t on the radar screen with them. For them to argue that this was about Bruning is to rewrite recent history.”
Similar to Fischer, Johanns scored an upset victory in the 1998 gubernatorial primary when he surged from third place to first in the campaign’s waning days. Although some are crediting 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s late endorsement for Fischer’s upset, Johanns said the state Senator deserves credit for her victory. Johanns said Fischer stayed out of the Bruning-Stenberg fight and ran a positive campaign, and she was “rewarded.” Additionally, Johanns said, she assembled a cadre of supporters that included respected Nebraska Republicans with years of political experience in the state — and she campaigned hard.
Johanns said Fischer comes from a respected ranching family, which he said served her well in the campaign despite being perceived in some quarters as the least conservative of the three primary candidates. However, Fischer won at least 75 of Nebraska’s 93 counties and cleaned up in the state’s rural counties that are home to some of the state’s most conservative voters.
“I would not classify her as tea party,” Johanns said. “She is a practical, common-sense conservative — and that is very typical of Nebraska. … I think you’re going to find her to be someone who can work with anybody but is very firm in her convictions. Deb is her own person.”
Johanns described Fischer as someone who is “as comfortable in blue jeans as a pant suit in the Legislature” and predicted that her Democratic opponent, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, would lose to her in November. Johanns said Kerrey is on the wrong side of too many issues and would be weighed down by President Barack Obama, who he predicted would lose Nebraska by 15 to 20 points. Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already attacked Fischer for voting in the Legislature to support a gas tax increase.
“I would call Bob a friend. But my goodness, setting aside New York and where he’s lived, he supports cap and trade, believes the health care bill did not go far enough and voted five times to uphold partial-birth abortion,” Johanns said. “I don’t know where Bob goes.”
Abby Livingston contributed to this post.