Nebraska's GOP Senate primary: another tea party surprise?

A late surge for Sarah Palin's pick for the Nebraska primary could topple yet another GOP establishment candidate, in a race that could help determine control of the US Senate.

Nati Harnik/AP/File
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (c) participates in a debate against state Treasurer Don Stenberg (r) and state Sen. Deb Fischer (l) in Omaha, Neb., on April 15. By May 14, the race among the Republicans for Nebraska's US Senate nomination appeared to tighten, as election officials predicted above-average turnout for the nationally watched contest.

A Nebraska Senate primary – which voters are deciding Tuesday – is shaping up to have a wild finish.

Until recently, most observers assumed that the front-runner in the GOP primary, Attorney General Jon Bruning, would win the primary and take on Democrat Bob Kerrey, the former US senator and governor, in November.

Mr. Kerrey is reentering politics in an effort to help Democrats retain a key Senate seat, which opened up when current Sen. Ben Nelson (D) announced he would retire.

Instead, this race – along with some other states' primaries this year – has become a battleground showcasing schisms in the Republican Party, including among tea party activists.

And now, the surge of momentum seems to be going to an unlikely candidate, rancher and state Sen. Deb Fischer, who is running for statewide office for the first time, on a shoestring budget.

Ms. Fischer's campaign has been bolstered in recent days by an endorsement from Sarah Palin, $200,000 worth of anti-Bruning ads in the past weekend from a "super PAC" controlled by Chicago Cubs co-owner Joe Ricketts, and an ad campaign of her own that gained significant attention. The ad features two large bulls tagged with her opponents' names – Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg – and asks voters, "tired of political bull?"

Now, despite millions spent on behalf of her opponents' campaigns and her own relative lack of funds, Fischer seems to have a chance of winning. Polling is relatively sparse, but one automated survey conducted Sunday by the polling firm We Ask America showed Fischer in first place with 39 percent, compared with Bruning's 34 percent and 18 percent for Mr. Stenberg.

A second poll, commissioned by Fischer-backer Ricketts, showed Fischer in a close second place, at 35 percent to Bruning's 38 percent.

"Some Republicans in the state are less comfortable with Bruning and don’t know that Stenberg is the best person to run against Bob Kerrey, and that’s created opening for Deb Fischer," says Michael Wagner, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Still, Professor Wagner cautions that the recent polls say nothing about who was polled and what was asked, and are fairly unreliable. "It could well be that the race is getting closer, but we have no way of knowing," he says.

The campaign has garnered attention – and a lot of outside money, mostly directed toward either Bruning or Stenberg – because of the importance of the seat to Republican hopes of regaining control of the Senate. If the Obama-Biden ticket is reelected, Republicans need to flip four seats to win Senate control, and Nebraska is one of their best shots. (If a Republican wins the White House, the GOP vice president becomes Senate president, empowered to break ties. In that case, Republicans would need a net gain of three seats.)

It's not clear, however, who the strongest GOP opponent would be in November, although given the state's conservative makeup, any of the three would likely be the favorite to defeat Kerrey, says Wagner. And despite the vicious nature of the campaign, there's not that much difference in the candidates' positions: All are solidly conservative.

Bruning, favored by most of the GOP establishment, has taken a harsh beating from his primary opponents, who question how he became wealthy as state attorney general.

Although Fischer, with the Palin stamp of approval, is now being cast by some as the tea party choice, much of the conservative wing of the party has backed Stenberg. He has earned endorsements from Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina – a godfather of the tea party movement – and his Senate Conservatives Fund, as well as the antitax Club for Growth.

Stenberg has tried to cast himself as the insurgent candidate, comparing himself with Richard Mourdock, the tea party candidate who defeated six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana's Republican Senate primary on May 8.

"I'd be the Richard Mourdock of the Nebraska race – the person who has the support of Club for Growth, US Sen. Jim DeMint, FreedomWorks," Stenberg told National Public Radio. "Jon Bruning is the establishment candidate. He has the establishment money and establishment endorsements."

But it's not really that simple. Bruning has also earned the backing of the Tea Party Express and Citizens United, as well as of former GOP presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.

Almost $3 million in independent money has been spent on the race, almost all of it on Stenberg and Bruning. But in the end, their negative campaigns may have opened a path for Fischer to surge ahead.

Moreover, despite easy comparisons to Christine O'Donnell or Sharron Angle – the tea party-backed US Senate candidates from Delaware and Nevada, respectively, who won their GOP primaries against establishment candidates, then lost in the 2010 general election – Fischer may end up being a relatively strong opponent to Kerrey, if she wins the nomination.

She would certainly need to raise more money. Through the end of April, Fischer had raised less than $400,000. But she carries less baggage than Bruning, seems to have an energy that Stenberg's campaign lacks, and, in a solidly red state like Nebraska, her conservative credentials may be an asset.

"She’s much less extreme than the typical surprise insurgent candidate, if she happens to win," says Wagner. "But she’s also just not as known a quantity."

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