Sen. Deb Fischer

Sen. Deb Fischer speaks at the 10th Annual Federal Legislative Summit at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum on Aug. 9.

Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould’s problem with organized labor is growing. That’s a warning flag for a Democratic candidate trying to unseat a Republican incumbent in red-state Nebraska’s Senate race.

Friday, Raybould’s Republican opponent, Sen. Deb Fischer, secured the endorsement of the politically influential union representing Omaha firefighters and paramedics.

Omaha’s is the second major local fire union to endorse Fischer over Raybould, joining the Lincoln fire union that interacts with Raybould regularly and criticized her for not supporting staffing increases.

Union leaders say Fischer has proven her support for first responders, citing her role in securing a federal cancer registry for firefighters and grants that help local departments boost staffing and replace outdated equipment.

Steve LeClair, the Omaha fire union’s president, calls Fischer “the real deal.” He says she and her staff solicit input on bills and regulations that affect firefighters, and she is often the first member of the delegation to call.

Fischer, for her part, has stressed the importance of the job firefighters do and the importance of federal support in regulations, laws and funding to help local fire departments protect people and property .

Raybould said in the past that she has not received some labor endorsements because she will not bargain away her votes. She has said her stance would better serve the interests of taxpayers than Fischer’s.

“Nebraskans know Senator Fischer isn’t working for them in Washington,” Raybould said Thursday in a campaign statement. Working people, she said, know about Fischer’s votes on health care that raised out-of-pocket costs.

But the reality, political observers say, is that a Democrat running statewide in Republican-leaning Nebraska must hold on to key Democratic constituencies to win, and one of those key constituencies is unions.

Jane Raybould

Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould during an interview at Cultiva Espresso in Lincoln on Aug. 24, 2017, ahead of her announcing her run for the U.S. Senate.

The Lincoln grocery store executive, whose family owns the company that runs Russ’s Markets and Super Savers, did secure the endorsement this month of Nebraska’s 23,000-member AFL-CIO, which didn’t endorse a Republican this year for federal office.

That statewide union had fanned concerns this spring about Raybould’s relationship with labor when its leadership couldn’t reach consensus about endorsing her in May’s Democratic primary.

Endorsements don’t tend to motivate large numbers of people to change the way they vote, based on studies of their impact, said John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

But unions still hold sway among some Democrats, centrists and pockets of Republicans whose votes remain up for grabs, particularly in the Omaha area. And surprising endorsements mean more than expected ones, he said.

Raybould has to amass a significant advantage in the Omaha area to compete with Fischer’s vast reservoir of support west of Lincoln, said Paul Landow, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Republicans running statewide typically win most counties in Nebraska’s largely rural 3rd Congressional District by large margins, and Fischer has the built-in advantage of her family living and ranching near Valentine.

If Fischer can close the gap in the Omaha area, some already-tricky math for Raybould gets trickier, Hibbing said. Historically, Democrats who have won statewide races tend to do well in Omaha and Lincoln.

Landow’s experiences at City Hall, including as chief of staff to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, taught him plenty about dealing with the local fire union. The first lesson, he said, is to value the purchases that keep firefighters safe.

There’s also the matter of the Omaha fire union’s political effectiveness. Landow called them a political “force” in Omaha. Unlike some unions, it still puts its money and 650-plus potential volunteers behind candidates.

“In terms of boots on the ground and money, the fire union is at the top of the heap,” Landow said. “If Democrats can’t count on major labor unions for support, they’re going to find it considerably more difficult to get elected.”

LeClair, who ran for Omaha Public Power District board as a Democrat, said the union, which leans toward Democrats but sometimes endorses Republicans, makes its endorsement decisions based on principle, not polling.

“We’ve endorsed candidates that have no chance of winning, and worked hard for them,” LeClair said. “If the data showed Raybould was killing it 60-40, we’d still be supporting Deb Fischer because she’s been there for us.”

CORRECTION: Steve LeClair, president of the Omaha fire union, ran for a seat on the Omaha Public Power District board. A previous version of this story listed the race incorrectly.

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