Why Sarah Palin's pick could triumph in Nebraska's US Senate race in fall

Tuesday's victory by Deb Fischer, who had the endorsement of Sarah Palin in the Nebraska GOP Senate primary, is an upset. But Fischer may in fact be the strongest Republican to run against Democrat Bob Kerrey, analysts say.

Nati Harnik/AP
Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer addresses supporters at the Republican Party headquarters in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, May 16. Fischer, a Nebraska rancher who has served in the state legislature since 2004, received the endorsement of Sarah Palin in the Nebraska GOP Senate primary.

Deb Fischer, a little-known and relatively unfunded candidate for US Senate, pulled off an upset in the Nebraska GOP primary Tuesday, and will face Democrat Bob Kerrey in November. She beat Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, the favorite to win, 41 percent to Mr. Bruning's 36 percent. State Treasurer Don Stenberg got 19 percent of the vote.

It's the second time this month – following last week's toppling of Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana by challenger Richard Mourdock – that an insurgent defeated a more "establishment" candidate in a key Republican Senate primary.

While the temptation is to declare it another victory for the tea party – and possibly for Democrats looking to the general election – it's not that simple.

Yes, Ms. Fischer, a Nebraska rancher who has served in the state legislature since 2004, received the endorsement of Sarah and Todd Palin. But she wasn't the tea party pick; she wasn't even more conservative than her opponents.

In fact, her two main competitors, Bruning and Mr. Stenberg, each earned endorsements from key tea party constituencies. Stenberg was the choice of Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina and his Senate Conservatives Fund, as well as the antitax Club for Growth.

Bruning – whom both Fischer and Stenberg sought to cast as the most "establishment" candidate – was endorsed by the Tea Party Express, Citizens United, and former GOP presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.

A Public Policy Poll (PPP) just before the primary showed Fischer surging ahead – and also indicated that her surge had little to do with ideology. Bruning actually led among tea party voters, 39 percent to 36 percent; among those who described themselves as "very conservative," Fischer was barely leading, 38 percent to 37 percent. 

"The shift in this race has a lot more to do with the candidates' images than it does with issues or philosophy," PPP noted in its analysis. Some political pundits have speculated that Fischer owes her victory primarily to the flawed natures of her opponents: Stenberg was a relatively weak candidate who has run for Senate, and lost, three previous times. Bruning has been the subject of scrutiny regarding his tenure as attorney general and the source of his wealth.

"Sometimes we get so wrapped up in this tea party/establishment/nonestablishment stuff that we forget the basics," Jennifer Duffy, who follows congressional races for the Cook Political Report, told CBS news Tuesday night after Fischer's victory.

In terms of what matters most to both Republicans and Democrats – whether Fischer can beat Mr. Kerrey, former US senator and Nebraska governor, in November – Fischer appears to be well positioned.

Yes, Kerrey is a well-known and popular politician, whose supporters asked him to return from New York (where he was serving as president of a university) to reenter politics when the incumbent Democratic senator, Ben Nelson, announced he would retire.

But Nebraska is a red, conservative state, and conservatives expect a particularly good turnout from voters eager to oust President Obama from office.

"Most people vote the party ID," says Michael Wagner, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "It’s a very difficult road for [Kerrey] to pull this off."

To take control of the Senate, Republicans need to flip four seats (if Obama loses, then they'd need to flip only three), and Nebraska is one they see as the most certain.

In the past, a primary victory by an insurgent conservative candidate has often spelled doom for Republicans in the general election (see: Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware). But many observers say Fischer may in fact be the strongest candidate to run against Kerrey.

Washington Democratic political strategists had been busy preparing to attack Bruning, who had many weaknesses. Now they will have to return to the drawing board. Fischer is solidly conservative, but not particularly extreme, and appears to have been respected in the legislature.

Yes, she's undefined and [Democrats] will try to define her quickly, but Democrats, despite what they don't say now, really, really wanted to run against Bruning," Ms. Duffy told CBS News. "In a lot of ways, she is the tougher general election candidate."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Fischer's win is that she was able to triumph with so little money. Forget the adage that money is everything in politics. Fischer raised $440,000 to Bruning’s $3.6 million.

Outside groups also spent several million on the race – much of which went toward attacking Bruning, but relatively little of which was for Fischer. (In the weekend before the primary, a "super political-action committee" controlled by Chicago Cubs co-owner Joe Ricketts did spend $200,000 in pro-Fischer, anti-Bruning ads.) 

Fischer will have to work fast to raise more money now, but it's a safe bet that much of the conservative establishment throwing itself behind Stenberg, and even Bruning, will start spending on her instead.

If she wins, Fischer will be the first female senator from Nebraska since 1954.

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