A state senator from a rural town, Deb Fischer stunned political observers when she beat two better-known Republicans in Nebraska’s GOP primary. She went on to defeat former Democratic Gov. Bob Kerrey in the general election, derailing his bid to reclaim the Senate seat he gave up in 2000.
Fischer grew up in Lincoln, where her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father was an engineer for the state’s Department of Roads. Her interest in public policy began in junior high school while watching Walter Cronkite anchor the CBS Evening News. Like many of her generation, the Vietnam War and the daily news reports of soldiers killed in that conflict reinforced to her how policy decisions can have a major impact.
She met her husband, Bruce Fischer, at the University of Nebraska and left college in 1972 to marry him. They settled on his family ranch near Valentine, in northern Nebraska. Despite growing up in what she describes as the “big small town” of Lincoln, Fischer said in an interview that she had little trouble adjusting to ranching life.
As her three boys grew older, Fischer went back to Lincoln to finish her degree. While she had no plans to teach, she graduated with a degree in education in 1988. She said she believed the degree would help her make decisions in the education leadership roles she had assumed, which began with service on the school board for Valentine’s small country school. Her first run for elected office was in 1990, when she won a seat on the Valentine Rural High School Board of Education. She later became president of the Nebraska Association of School Boards.
Fischer said she was drawn to the Republican Party’s focus on limited government. In 2004, she won a seat in Nebraska’s unicameral state legislature and was reelected in 2008. During her eight years in office, Fischer said she was guided by the view that state government has four main duties: education, infrastructure, public safety, and providing a safety net for the needy. “I’ve always tried to keep those in mind in making tough decisions,” she said.
Fischer secured the chairmanship of the legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Among her biggest achievements was helping to win passage of legislation to shift some of the state’s sales tax revenues to road construction.
She waited until the end of the legislative session to enter the U.S. Senate race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. In her campaign, she pledged to support measures to boost job creation and to balance the federal budget while promoting conservative values.
Facing state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg in the primary, Fischer began the race as the underdog. Bruning enjoyed the support of the GOP establishment, while tea party leaders including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., rallied behind Stenberg. Fischer, however, steadily gained traction as Stenberg and Bruning turned their fire against each other. She also benefitted from the endorsement of 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and a last-minute television ad blitz funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. She finished with 41 percent of the vote to Bruning’s 36 percent and Stenberg’s 19 percent.
Fischer has taken mainstream GOP stands on issues ranging from taxes to abortion rights. She opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother. In the general election, she touted her leadership skills and ability to work with both parties. She came out in favor of the Senate’s version of legislation to reauthorize agriculture and nutrition programs and urged House lawmakers to pass the bill. She distanced herself from controversial comments made by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who said at a fundraiser that he would never be able to appeal to 47 percent of voters who rely on government support.
Fischer stressed her family’s ranching background and work on issues important to rural Nebraska. Democrats attacked Fischer as a millionaire “welfare rancher” because the family ranch, like others in Nebraska, paid below-market rates to use federal grazing lands. Fischer’s campaign countered that such attacks were offensive to thousands of Nebraska farmers.
Fischer said she can work well with both parties in the Senate, pointing to her experience in the legislature. “My style is to develop relationships with people you work with” regardless of party, she said, citing Nebraska’s senior senator, Republican Mike Johanns, as a role model.
Juliana Gruenwald contributed to this article.