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Fischer drops hints on Senate bid

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Published Thursday June 9, 2011

Fischer drops hints on Senate bid

By Robynn Tysver
WORLD-HERALD BUREAU

LINCOLN — Buckle up, Nebraska voters.

The state’s budding U.S. Senate race has the makings of an expensive and thrilling ride, including the growing likelihood of another Republican contender.

State Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine appears on the brink of announcing her candidacy, which would set up a GOP primary scramble with three strong candidates.

Fischer has booked herself for several Nebraska parades, including one on the Fourth of July in Seward, Neb., and another this weekend in Blair — far from her north-central Nebraska legislative district.

She told The World-Herald she would make an announcement soon.

If she gets in, the flavor of the Republican primary changes. What had been a two-way battle between GOP statewide officeholders Jon Bruning and Don Stenberg could become a free-for-all.

“It reshuffles the deck,” said John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

GOP interest in the 2012 race is fueled by the perception that Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson is ripe for defeat after casting the 60th vote for President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Indeed, several national political groups and trade publications tag Nelson among the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats. Nelson has not formally committed to a re-election bid, but he appears to be a candidate. He has hired campaign staff, maintains a robust political operation and is actively raising money.

If he runs, the Senate contest could become a $20 million-plus race, with outside interest groups pouring money into political advertisements, said Paul Johnson, Nelson’s campaign manager.

Already, groups such as the national Tea Party Express organization have prioritized Nelson’s defeat.

And the interest is stoking Republican hopes.

Fischer’s entry could add several dimensions.

The question of whom her candidacy hurts or helps is debatable. Regardless, her entry would pave the way for a fractured primary in which a winning candidate might need only 30 to 40 percent of the vote.

For now, three candidates have officially announced for the GOP race, including Bruning, Nebraska’s attorney general, and Don Stenberg, the state’s treasurer. Pat Flynn, a Schuyler businessman, is the third Republican candidate.

Bruning is considered the current front-runner. In his last financial disclosure reports, his campaign showed more than $1 million in the bank, compared with $14,000 each for Stenberg and Flynn.

But Stenberg, a former state attorney general, has run numerous statewide campaigns, including three failed Senate bids. He can count on a solid base of support.

“The conventional wisdom is that a third candidate will hurt Bruning and help Stenberg, because Stenberg’s base is so solid,” said J.L. Spray, a Republican from Lincoln long involved in Nebraska party politics.

Of course, Fischer and Stenberg could vie for similar votes, giving Bruning a clear advantage, said Hibbing.

Fischer would have to buck recent history to win. A rancher’s wife, she lives in rural Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District. The last time a U.S. senator lived in that district while in Congress was 1979 — Sen. Carl Curtis of Minden.

Of course, other Nebraska senators have had rural ties, including Nelson, who grew up in McCook, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who lived in several small Nebraska towns.

Fischer’s ties to ranch country could help her connect with voters in western Nebraska. But the big question remains whether she can raise money in Omaha and Lincoln.

Fischer says she can, noting that she grew up in Lincoln and spent eight years in the Legislature.

“I have connections across the state,” she said.

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