For months, the Republican U.S. Senate primary in Nebraska has been a bitter proxy fight, pitting the GOP establishment’s choice, state Attorney General Jon Bruning against the even-more-far-right state Treasurer Don Stenberg. The two waged a bruising battle for nearly a year, but as recently as two weeks ago, it looked like Bruning would get the nod.
Who won? Oddly enough, neither of them.
In a dramatic, come-from-behind dash to the finish line late Tuesday evening, state Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine laid claim to the Republican Senate nomination.
Her late surge, perhaps unprecedented in modern-day Nebraska political history, upended a Senate race that appeared to be settled as recently as 10 days ago with the GOP prize within the grasp of Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.
One almost needed a scorecard to keep up with the competing contingents. First there was Bruning, an experienced and well-funded statewide candidate recruited by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, backed by the party establishment at the state and national level. Then there was Stenberg, who enjoyed the support of Jim DeMint, Rick Santorum, the Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks.
And finally there was Fischer, who had Sarah Palin’s backing, and financial support from Joe Ricketts, the wealthy AmeriTrade founder, who paid for some late attack ads targeting Bruning’s character.
As the dust settled last night, Fischer beat Bruning by four points, 40% to 36%, with Stenberg finishing a distant third, despite $2 million in spending from right-wing groups. Fischer will face former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), who’s trying to make a comeback after several years away from his native Nebraska. Fischer is arguably the favorite in this “red” state, but in light of the GOP primary results, Democrats are more optimistic about the race than they were a few days ago.
In terms of the larger lessons from this primary fight, we learned that Jim DeMint and the Club for Growth aren’t nearly the kingmakers they thought they were, but more importantly, we also learned that the Republican establishment, after losing badly in Indiana last week, and suffering a series of embarrassments in 2010, is far weaker than many realized.
Indeed, in 2014, how much sway will the NRSC have when it tries to recruit candidates? Given its recent track record, very little.