- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 8, 2012

In an election filled with disappointments for Republicans, the closely watched U.S. Senate race in Nebraska provided a rare bright spot.

Republican Deb Fischer, just months ago a little-known state senator backed by strong tea party support, defeated Democrat Bob Kerrey, the state’s former governor and senator, in a landslide, making Nebraska the only state in which a Senate seat flipped from blue to red in the 2012 cycle.

Ms. Fischer took advantage of the state’s solid conservative majority, but she also avoided the foot-in-mouth moments that plagued once-favored Republican Senate candidates such as W. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.

Mr. Akin and Mr. Mourdock for much of their races had enjoyed leads in the polls and were expected to win, but their chances evaporated after each made widely criticized remarks about rape.

Ms. Fischer, on the other hand, led by double digits over the summer and maintained that lead throughout the fall, partly by never making controversial statements or taking positions that might have alienated Cornhusker State voters. She stuck mostly to the tried-and-true Republican script of promising to cut spending, shrink government and address entitlement reform.

On election night, Ms. Fischer garnered 58 percent of the vote to Mr. Kerrey’s 41 percent, disproving some polls that in recent weeks had shown the race — which chose the replacement for retiring Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate Democrat — tightening dramatically.

“Deb Fischer didn’t run a great campaign, but you don’t have to. You just have to not screw up,” said John Hibbing, a political scholar at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Given the state’s political leanings — Nebraska went for Republican Mitt Romney over President Obama by more than 20 percentage points — it’s tough sledding for any Democrat running statewide, Mr. Hibbing said. The retiring Mr. Nelson, seen as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, understood the political dynamics of the state and cultivated trust among Republicans.

Without Mr. Nelson on the ballot, it was easier for Nebraskans to return to what they’re most comfortable with: voting Republican.

“It was just easier for their innate conservatism to come through,” Mr. Hibbing said.

Mr. Kerrey tried to appeal those conservative voters by sounding like even more of a fiscal hawk than Ms. Fischer. Throughout the campaign, particularly in the duo’s debates, he offered dire warnings about the financial future of the nation without major changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He also trotted out bipartisan endorsements, such as the backing of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican.

Despite those and other moves, he understood that the political winds in Nebraska were not in his favor.

“We knew this would be an uphill struggle. We knew the odds were against us,” Mr. Kerrey said during his election night concession speech.

In her victory address, Ms. Fischer promised to serve with “honesty and integrity” and vowed to tackle the big fiscal challenges facing the country.

But the race was about more than budget deficits and entitlement reforms. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Kerrey was dogged by the “carpetbagger” label as the Fischer campaign and others painted him as an opportunist who returned to Nebraska solely for personal political benefit.

Prior to the race, Mr. Kerrey had spent more than a decade as president of a liberal university in New York City. He fought hard to shake that perception, but in the end, couldn’t escape it.

“It was laid on him early on. People were reminded of that frequently. Fischer didn’t have to do much of it herself,” Mr. Hibbing said. “She just let other people remind you that [Kerrey] had spent much of his adult life in another state.”

Ms. Fischer will be one of just three freshmen GOP senators taking office in January, joining Rep. Jeff Flake in Arizona and Ted Cruz of Texas, both of whom replaced GOP incumbents. Republicans, who had hopes earlier this year of taking control of the 100-seat chamber, ended up Tuesday night with a net loss of two seats and will have just 45 senators in the next Congress.

Ms. Fischer will also be part of a record number of female senators in the chamber. There will be 20 women in the Senate next year, up from 17 currently, with 16 of them Democrats and four Republicans.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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