This is the second of three days of special coverage of Nebraska' GOP Senate race.
Saturday: Deb Fischer - Why hasn't the Sandhills candidate caught fire?
Sunday: Jon Bruning - How has the attorney general grown wealthy in office? Bruning: 'I know right, wrong'
Monday: Don Stenberg - Does he represent a safe harbor or a ship that's sailed? Stenberg: 'Learn from elections lost'
May 1: Republican Race for the Senate: An Omaha World-Herald Debate. Click here to learn more.
LINCOLN — The countdown has begun in the Republican primary, and Deb Fischer's U.S. Senate campaign still fizzles on the launch pad.
Fischer, 61, lags badly in the polls and in fundraising. She forfeited valuable time on the campaign trail by deciding to serve out her eighth year in the Nebraska Legislature.
Tight finances forced her to delay airing TV ads until early April, when only six weeks remained in a battle that her better-known opponents had been waging for months.
With just 24 days remaining before the May 15 primary, it has been a disappointing showing for a candidate that many Republicans thought had the right stuff to bring down GOP rivals Jon Bruning and Don Stenberg.
Fischer is the matriarch of a Cherry County ranching family in Republican-rich cattle country, with longtime ties to business, education and agriculture. She grew up in Lincoln, where her dad, Jerry Strobel, was state roads director for former Republican Gov. Kay Orr.
In the Legislature, she landed a powerful leadership position and earned a reputation as a hard-nosed and tenacious negotiator. She maintains impeccable conservative credentials on key issues such as tax cuts, abortion restrictions, immigration enforcement, oil production and gun rights.
Orr and former U.S. Rep. John Y. McCollister are co-chairing her campaign.
But a résumé isn't enough for a race that the national GOP hopes could shift the balance of power in Washington.
Also required: statewide name recognition, competitive fundraising and relentless advertising.
"My professional opinion is, 'No, she doesn't have a chance,' " said University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor John Hibbing. "It adds up to a very tough challenge for Deb Fischer. Stranger things have happened, but right now, I wouldn't bet the family farm."
Don't count her out, Fischer and her campaign manager Aaron Trost say. The detractors underestimate the extent of her grassroots network and the amount of work she accomplished on evenings and weekends during the legislative session, they say.
With the Legislature now adjourned, she's in position to make a sprint to the finish.
"We can do this," Fischer said in a recent interview. "I believe we have a lot of traction. We have momentum. ... Maybe they (detractors) should read a different blog. Really. It's the same old chattering establishment. They're just talking to each other."
More of Deb Fischer
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Deb Fischer profile
Occupation: Rancher, shareholder, Sunny Slope Ranch Inc.
Office held: State senator, elected 2004; Valentine Rural High School Board of Education
Education: Bachelor's degree, education, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1988
Family: Married, three sons
Top five industries contributing to Deb Fischer's campaign
Crop production and basic processing: $18,500
Lawyers/law firms: $18,000
General contractors: $13,300
Source: OpenSecrets.org, based on most recent data released by Federal Election Commission (Open Secrets data aggregates multiple contributions based upon donors' employment and family ties.)
Deb Fischer's financial status
Total assets range from $2.2 million to $6.69 million. They include:
513.35 shares in Sunny Slope Ranch Inc., valued between $1 million and $5 million.
Spouse, Bruce, 513.35 shares in Sunny Slope Ranch Inc., valued at $1 million or more.
Other assets, including checking account, IRAs, life insurance and golf club membership: valued between $240,000 and $695,000.
Total liabilities range from $1.7 million to $6.5 million. They include:
Personal guarantees on three Sunny Slope Ranch promissory notes, total amount ranging between $1.55 million and $6.1 million.
Other liabilities, including debts to John Deere credit and life insurance premiums paid by Sunny Slope Ranch Inc., range between $80,000 and $400,000.
Net worth: Fischer declined to provide an estimate of her net worth.
Source: 2012 candidate financial disclosure report filed with U.S. Senate
Fischer's strategy: Strengthen her network of acquaintances and friends established through 25 years of volunteer work for agriculture and education groups; shore up her base in western Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District, which provided about 40 percent of GOP primary voters in the past three elections; and squeak through the middle as Bruning and Stenberg trade political body blows.
Mike Johanns succeeded with a similar grassroots strategy to nab the 1998 GOP nomination for governor, winning the nomination with 40 percent of the vote while his two rivals feuded.
But Johanns spent three years building his grass roots network. He also spent $1.7 million on the governor's primary, though his opponents spent more.
As of March 30, Fischer had raised $356,000 and has spent less than a year campaigning part-time against two seasoned GOP war horses.
Bruning, who has been pursuing a Senate bid since before 2008, has won the money race — raising $3.3 million, spending $1.9 million and with $1.4 million left in his war chest in the remaining weeks before the vote.
Stenberg, who has run for Senate three times before, hasn't done as well raising money — $628,000 as of March 31 — but his national reputation has gained him the backing of Super PACs that so far have spent $1.4 million on his behalf.
Fischer, in turn, has received the backing of Maggie's List and ShePAC, two fairly new national organizations created to boost conservative women candidates. The groups are not expected to be major financial supporters.
Johanns declined to comment on Fischer's race. But he said his early start was critical because he did not want to step down as Lincoln mayor. So in October 1995, he and his wife, Stephanie, started spending evenings and weekends on the campaign trail.
"There would never be a time where I could set aside six months and campaign nonstop," he recalled. "If we had any chance at all with that grassroots approach, it would take Steph and I showing up for everything over three years and building our county organizations."
Fischer, in contrast, had less than a year to go before the primary when she announced her Senate bid last June 28. Much of November was eaten up by the Legislature's special session on an oil pipeline route, while January through mid-April were dominated by the regular session.
It is also true that she has yet to establish the eastern Nebraska base that Johanns enjoyed as Lincoln mayor. Only about one in seven of her donors come from the Omaha area.
Fischer's base is the sparsely populated Sand Hills, where she and her husband, Bruce, own a minority share of the Sunny Slope Ranch Inc., a 21,000-acre operation, about a half-hour's drive from Valentine.
Their three grown sons, Adam, Morgan and Luke, own the majority of the stock. The sons live in homes at the ranch, while their parents now have a home in Valentine.
The ranch was purchased by Bruce Fischer's father, W.J. Fischer, and his maternal grandfather, Frank Barber, in 1941.
The Fischers' family corporation owns about half of the ranch's 21,000 acres, while the remainder is federal land leased under a grazing program that gives the Fischers access for about $4,700 for seven months. That's about $110,000 less than the market rate for private land in Cherry County.
Family members, including siblings and in-laws, have given her about $45,000 toward her campaign — or about 13 percent of the amount she's collected from individual donors.
In Fischer's bare-bones campaign office next door to Republican state headquarters in downtown Lincoln, a patchwork of Post-It notes spread over two walls lists a chairman's name for each of Nebraska's 93 counties.
The office is furnished with folding tables and hand-me-down chairs — the only visible splurge is a state-of-the-art phone system, staffed by a handful of student interns and volunteers churning through a list of phone numbers of registered GOP voters.
One button is pressed to dial the next number up on the programmed list. A second button is pressed to drop a pre-recorded message into the recipient's answering machine.
Field director Jack Spray says the campaign is able to make 1,200 to 1,500 phone calls a day.
The volunteers include Fischer's widowed mother, Florence Strobel, 88, a retired elementary school teacher.
As of Dec. 31, Strobel had fronted her daughter $5,000 toward the Senate bid and was spending about five hours a day at campaign headquarters. On a good day, she makes 300 calls.
Fischer defends her decision to stay in the Legislature, even though the demands of the session have cut into the time available to meet voters and woo contributors.
"I ran for the office, and I'm staying in the office," she said. "I made a commitment, and I'm keeping my word."
Fischer has served two terms in the Legislature and is not eligible to run for re-election under Nebraska's term limits law.
During this year's session, she spearheaded successful legislation requiring cities to get voter approval before implementing occupation taxes, such as food and beverage taxes, and a bill that allows telecommunications boundary changes to improve customer access to broadband service.
But perhaps her biggest success came in 2011, when she led the successful effort to earmark $70 million in sales tax revenues for highway construction, beginning in 2013. That measure won her the loyalty of the road building industry.
More 2012 election coverage
Debate: GOP Senate candidates Jon Bruning, Deb Fischer and Don Stenberg will come together in Omaha at 7 p.m. on May 1. Watch live on NET TV and Omaha.com, and follow along with updates in a live chat on Omaha.com. To submit a question for consideration, send an email to Robynn.Tysver@owh.com.
Omaha.com: Our new election page is the best resource for campaign coverage. Read recent stories and tweets from our reporters and the candidates, and find your polling place and get to know the issues in our candidate bios. Omaha.com/election
Tyler Chicoine, an executive with Garcia-Chicoine Enterprises, a Milford, Neb., road construction company, said Fischer is an effective lawmaker and would be an asset in Washington. The Association of General Contractors has endorsed her Senate bid, he said.
She also has been endorsed by 13 of her fellow state senators, some of whom say they plan to fan out to help her campaign now that the session is adjourned.
Former Gov. Orr said she's come around to the wisdom of Fischer's decision to stay in the Legislature.
"At first, I thought that might be an error," she said. "Now I think she did the right thing. She wanted to serve out her term. Her experience there is invaluable to her colleagues and to the state."
Fischer said she crammed as much campaigning as possible around her legislative schedule. She traveled the state last summer and fall, knowing logistics would force her to focus on eastern Nebraska after the session began in January.
A calendar provided by her campaign indicated that she made 83 campaign appearances in more than 30 communities from Jan. 3 to March 31. Although 29 were in Lincoln, she visited Omaha 14 times and made multiple trips to Kearney, Grand Island and Norfolk.
Mindy Dodge of Papillion said Fischer won her over at a recent appearance before the Sarpy County Republicans.
"I think if people get a chance to hear her and listen to her, she can do it," Dodge said.
Former state GOP Chairman David Kramer and his wife, Beth, hosted a Fischer fundraiser in their Omaha home in March.
Kramer was impressed that he knew only about half of the 50 or so Omaha residents who attended.
"Deb has tapped into an energized group of folks who have not participated in the political arena before," he said.
Fischer survived a bruising seven-candidate primary in her successful 2004 bid to represent the Legislature's sprawling 43rd District.
Using some smart late-campaign moves — one last mailing just before Election Day and drawing upon the state teachers' union for get-out-the-vote phone calls — she defeated Ansley rancher Kevin Cooksley by fewer than 130 votes.
But a Senate bid is another story.
Though she's received some money from industry executives, the contacts she made while heading the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee have not yet generated major contributions.
The Nebraska State Education Association has not recommended her for funding from its national political action committee.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau, a major supporter in her legislative campaign, has remained neutral in the Senate primary. Based on her long involvement with the group, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has given her a single contribution of $2,500.
However, she has lost support from some in her home district because they are disappointed in her support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Reports that she and her husband benefit from federal grazing rights also have cost some good will in her home legislative district.
Kramer said Fischer can and does win over voters.
But it's tough to win an election 50 voters at a time, he acknowledged.
"Between Jon's resources and the third-party resources on Don's behalf, it's going to be more difficult for her to get her message out," he said.
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