New video: Fischer speaks during Wednesday-morning GOP press conference.
New video: Bob Kerrey visits with supporters outside Prairie Life Fitness Center in Midtown Omaha.
Video: Deb Fischer's acceptance speech
Photo showcase: 2012 primary election night parties
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LINCOLN — The 3rd District delivered for Deb Fischer.
Two months ago, the underdog candidate said the foundation for her hoped-for victory would be the Republican-rich expanse of the 3rd Congressional District, which extends from the Panhandle east, wrapping around the Omaha and Lincoln metro areas.
The results of Tuesday's U.S. Senate primary election proved her right.
The faithful, predominantly Republican voters of the big 3rd turned out in higher proportions than their peers in the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts.
Turnout in each of the district's 75 counties averaged nearly 28 percent, according to an analysis of county-by-county statistics produced by the Secretary of State's Office. That compares with less than 25 percent turnout in the state's other two districts.
And in many individual counties turnout was much higher. In Cherry County, where Fischer owns a ranch with her family, nearly 50 percent of voters cast ballots.
Fischer was able to wrest the GOP nomination from front-runner Jon Bruning by carrying 46 percent of the Republican vote in the 3rd District, while putting in strong showings in the 1st and 2nd Districts.
Combined vote totals for the 18 counties that make up the 1st and 2nd Districts show that Fischer got 37.4 percent of the vote there, while Bruning got 38.1 percent.
Barb Cooksley, a Custer County ranch wife and a Fischer campaign volunteer, said the candidate's 3rd District roots resonated with her.
“She appealed to me as a ranch wife and a mother,” she said. “She could relate to our business, which is agriculture.”
Cooksley said she had no negative feelings about Bruning. It was just that Fischer's campaign called and asked for her help.
“It truly was a network, a grass-roots effort,” she said. “They knew that I knew people in Custer County, so that's what I did. I started calling people up.”
It was the first statewide election for Fischer, a two-term state senator from the Sand Hills town of Valentine. She raised $440,000 for her bid, compared with the $3.6 million raised by Bruning, the state's attorney general, though outside groups also spent money on the race.
Campaign manager Aaron Trost said Fischer benefited from the unique dynamics and demographics of a primary election in rural Nebraska.
“The dynamics of primaries are different than generals,” he said. “A lot can happen very quickly. Money and name recognition are important, but there's a lot more to it.”
“You can shake enough hands to go a long way,” Trost added.
The 3rd District phenomenon is an age-old story in Nebraska politics, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor John Hibbing.
“There are loads of Republicans out there,” he said. “Even though the congressional districts divide the state into thirds numerically, there are an inordinate number of Republicans in the 3rd District, so it exercises a lot of clout (in a GOP primary).”
The effect is amplified by the 3rd District's tradition of high voter turnout, said Secretary of State John Gale.
“I call it the ‘Thundering 3rd,'” said Gale, who hails from North Platte, in the heart of the 3rd District. “You have a higher (Republican) citizen base, and you always have a much higher turnout.”
Three 3rd District counties had turnout exceeding 50 percent of registered voters, with Boone County the highest at almost 60 percent. Eleven counties had more than 40 percent turnout.
That's not unusual.
In 2010, Nebraska had 11 counties with turnout exceeding 50 percent. All were in the 3rd District.
It must be said, however, that the 14 high-turnout counties from this year's primary produced less than 11,000 votes. In Fischer's Cherry County, 2,101 people voted.
In contrast, nearly 20,000 people voted in Sarpy County, even though that Omaha metro-area county had turnout of just under 21 percent, the fifth-lowest in the state.
A 3rd District strategy is well-suited for an underfunded, grass-roots campaign like Fischer's. Trost said the campaign spent only about $20,000 to advertise in the Omaha market.
“Obviously, we did what we needed to do in the 3rd District, and I was happy to do as well as we did in Douglas County, considering our advertising budget.”
Joyce Simmons, a Valentine orthodontist who served as Fischer's Cherry County chairwoman, said grass-roots campaigning is the only choice in much of the sprawling district.
With no one radio station, no TV station and no newspaper serving the entire district, candidates have to work hard to spread their message, a few voters at a time, she said.
“The only option is to get in your car and drive and to have the people who are supporting you gather their friends so that they become involved and gather their friends,” she said. “That's the way it's done. It's true grass roots, and it's tough.”
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Deb Fischer's acceptance speech