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Deb Fischer never appeared to break a sweat in her run for the U.S. Senate.
The Valentine rancher with the unflappable demeanor — who appeared to be the only Nebraskan not surprised by her come-from-behind win in this spring’s Republican primary — breezed past Democratic superstar Bob Kerrey on Tuesday.
Fischer won in a landslide, despite being pummeled by Kerrey in the campaign’s closing weeks over a land dispute with her Cherry County neighbors.
“You folks were here for me when we weren’t given much of a chance at all,” she told her supporters at a victory party in downtown Lincoln. “But we formed a great grass-roots organization and we worked hard, and, hey, we’re here today.”
Fischer’s acceptance speech was short and to the point — a hallmark of her campaign. She promised Nebraskans to listen to their concerns, to fight for their interests in the Senate and to uphold core principles, such as justice, personal responsibility and freedom.
“I will work hard. I will serve you with honesty and integrity. You know what? We’re going to build a better America,” said Fischer, who spoke with her family and two key supporters standing behind her: Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and former Gov. Kay Orr.
Kerrey’s concession speech was even shorter. He asked his supporters to set aside any personal animus they might feel toward Fischer. He also said that he knew it would be an uphill struggle but that the struggle to advance their issues must continue.
“We knew the odds were against us, but remember this: Some of the best causes have seemed at first like lost causes, but ... I believe that in time we will prevail,” Kerrey said.
Fischer’s win was historic on several fronts: gender, geography and raw politics.
Fischer is the first woman from Nebraska elected to a full term in the Senate after a full-scale, competitive campaign. The two women who previously represented Nebraska in the Senate served brief terms after being appointed (Eva Bowring, seven months) or elected to serve out the remainder of a term due to a death (Hazel Abel, seven weeks).
Fischer’s election was a huge sweep for Nebraska Republicans and a devastating blow to Nebraska Democrats, who will not hold a single major statewide elected office.
State Republicans have controlled all five of the state’s constitutional offices — such as governor and attorney general — since 1998. Now, for the first time since 1977, Republicans also will hold all five of the state’s federal offices.
“Clearly, it’s historic,” said Mark Fahleson, state Republican chairman. “But it’s important to keep in mind that these victories are victories on policy issues, and the position of our parties and our candidates are more closely aligned with the majority of Nebraskans.”
Additionally, Fischer is the first small-town Nebraskan to win a Senate seat in decades.
All the state’s recent U.S. senators lived in either Lincoln or Omaha at the time of their election. The last rural Nebraskan to win was the late Sen. Carl Curtis, a Minden attorney who retired in 1978.
Fischer first caught Nebraska’s attention this spring, when, in a competitive three-way GOP primary, she came from behind in the final weeks to win the nomination. In the process, she bested two big statewide names: Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg.
She then pivoted to face Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator who was considered the Democrats’ best hope to keep the seat.
From the start, Fischer was considered the front-runner. In political terms, she had numbers on her side. Republicans have increased their ranks in Nebraska since Kerrey left office. Nearly half of Nebraskans — 48 percent — are registered as Republicans, while 32 percent are Democrats.
Several polls released over the final weeks of the campaign gave different snapshots of how the race was shaping up. The World-Herald Poll two weeks ago showed Fischer up by a mere 3 percentage points, while a poll conducted by We Ask America on Nov. 1 found Fischer with a 22 percentage point lead.
In the end, Fischer won by 16 percentage points, 58-42.
A former school board member, Fischer ran a relatively low-key campaign, hewing to a broad conservative message in which she promised voters that she would cut federal spending without raising taxes. She rarely took public shots at Kerrey. Most of her criticisms came in television advertisements that poked at him for being a “New York liberal.”
“All she did was basically the same thing she did in the primary: run a very solid, reasonable campaign and not do anything crazy. She relied on the Republican voter registration advantage, and (she relied on) the Republican political operation to turn out the vote,” said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
It was always going to be a tough haul for Kerrey, especially after Fischer won the primary.
Kerrey was the race’s household name, but his name recognition was a double-edged sword.
He angered many Nebraskans with his sudden return after living more than a decade in New York. He had, arguably, one of the worst campaign rollouts in recent state history. He flirted on and off with a bid for several months before swooping in and beating the filing deadline by a day.
Some voters made it clear early in the race that they were voting for Fischer — not because they knew much about the low-key state senator from Valentine, but because they were angry with Kerrey for his return to run for office.
“I think Nebraskans are very protective. Spending a reasonable amount of time outside the state would not be a factor in New York, but Nebraskans are a different breed in that regard,” said John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Political insiders and others say that when Kerrey entered the race, he expected to run against Bruning or Stenberg. When Fischer won, the Kerrey campaign appeared to spend several weeks, if not months, figuring out a campaign strategy.
“His campaign left the impression that they really didn’t know how to campaign against her ... for a couple of months,” said Adkins.
Kerrey tried several times to raise questions about Fischer’s character, hoping to seed doubt among Nebraskans. He originally accused her of being a “welfare rancher,” noting that her family had grazing rights to federal land at rates far below market value.
He then accused her of being a “bad neighbor” because she and her husband, Bruce, sued an elderly couple in 1995 in attempt to gain ownership of 104 acres along the scenic Snake River.
World-Herald staff writers Joseph Morton and Joe Duggan contributed to this report.
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DEB FISCHER'S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH