Republicans picked up a Senate seat in Nebraska on Tuesday, according to NBC News and CBS News, with State Sen. Deb Fischer besting former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey to replace retiring Democrat Ben Nelson.
The Nebraska seat was always viewed as a challenge for Democrats to hold onto in the crimson Cornhusker State. Fischer’s victory speaks to the way she effectively nationalized the race, winning support from well-known Republicans and money from outside conservative political groups. Kerrey made inroads in what was identified early on as an uphill challenge, but ultimately could not repeat his previous feats of winning statewide even though he carries a “D” after his name.
Fischer’s path to victory wasn’t always clear-cut. She began as a dark-horse candidate. Yet she upended statewide officeholders Don Stenberg, the treasurer, and Jon Bruning, the attorney general, for the nomination following a late primary surge. That was attributed to a big financial lift from billionaire Joe Ricketts, founder of Omaha-based brokerage TD Ameritrade. Ricketts’ Ending Spending Action Fund super PAC made a $250,000 ad buy on Fischer’s behalf; that, plus big-name endorsements from former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, led to an upset primary victory for Fischer.
Kerrey, who served in the Senate from 1989 to 2001, floated the idea of entering the race after Nelson announced he was retiring in December but backed away in early February, saying he didn’t want to spend time away from his family in New York, where he spent the last decade heading The New School. Weeks later, however, he announced his candidacy for a race that was believed to heavily favor the Republican nominee.
And indeed, Fischer maintained a sizeable lead over the summer. Republicans quickly painted Kerrey as an outsider — a New Yorker no longer in touch with Nebraska mores. They criticized his support for the health care reform law. Internal polling by Democrats and Republicans alike showed Kerrey trailing by double digits.
Kerrey closed the gap as the election approached. In October, he launched a series of TV ads attacking Fischer’s character. The ads described a 1995 case in which Fischer, a rancher, sued her elderly neighbors for their land. “It is a question of character,” the ad’s voiceover said of Fischer’s actions. Fischer denounced the ads as untrue. She said the dispute was necessary — that she and her family had to clarify the legal boundaries of their property in order to sell part of their land.
Kerrey also emphasized his willingness to reach across the aisle at a time when Washington is hyper-partisan and gridlocked. He won late endorsements from a number of former Republican senators, including fellow Nebraskan Chuck Hagel, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire.
Kerrey outspent Fischer, as well. As of Oct. 17, the former senator had spent more than $5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Fischer spent closer to $3.5 million. On the fundraising front, there was more parity. Kerrey raised $4.9 million; Fisher took in $4.5 million.
As the race tightened, conservative groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS put $420,000 into airing ads attacking Kerrey in the campaign’s final week. But even so, the tighter race “might simply [have been] the natural closure that occurs when both candidates are equally well known,” The Cook Political Report wrote.
Even as the polls drew closer, strategists continued to forecast a Fischer victory. She won the backing of other well-known Republicans, including former Sens. Bob and Elizabeth Dole, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Kerrey, despite his credentials, failed to do what would have been tough for any Democrat: Get enough split-ticket votes in a state that went handily to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.