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Republican Fischer upsets rivals in Nebraska Senate primary

Nati Harnik / Associated Press

Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer applauds her supporters with her husband Bruce Fischer, left, at her election party May 15 in Lincoln, Neb.


Updated 11:20 p.m. — Insurgent Republican candidate Deb Fischer bested two rivals with superior financing and organizations to win the Republican Senate nomination in Nebraska on Tuesday. 

Fischer earned the right to face former Sen. Bob Kerrey in a Senate race seen as crucial to Republicans' chances of retaking the Senate next year. She and Kerrey will battle to succeed the retiring centrist Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. 

Fischer bested her two Republican rivals, state Attorney General Jon Bruning and Don Stenberg, according to Associated Press projections. Bruning had enjoyed establishment support and had raised the most money, while Stenberg, who'd previously run for the Senate three times before, had worked to consolidate support from conservatives. 

A state senator who heads the Nebraska legislature's transportation committee, Fischer made a late charge for the nomination aided by a nearly yearlong fight between Bruning and Stenberg. 

Adding to that momentum was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who on Monday released a letter in support of Fischer.

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“We admire your conservative principles and know that you will not go to Washington to amass great wealth or power. You will go to Washington to serve the people of Nebraska, protect our Constitution and work for common sense solutions to help restore America,” wrote Palin, who made a habit of backing insurgent and Tea Party Senate candidates in 2010, often shortly before Election Day.

Fischer won't face a cakewalk on her way to Washington, though. Democrats tapped former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who served two terms representing Nebraska before becoming president of The New School in New York City, to succeed Nelson.

But Republicans are optimistic that they can paint Kerrey, a Vietnam War hero who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, as an out-of-touch liberal. Kerrey, for instance, said last week that he also supports same-sex marriage in light of President Barack Obama’s similar pronouncement – a position that might not prove popular with Nebraskans come November.

Fischer has been the least well-funded of the candidates, and her small organization relative to her two primary challengers could prompt more assistance from the national Republican Party.

Moreover, were Fischer to become Republicans’ candidate, she would be facing statewide exposure for the first time, and against a seasoned political figure like Kerrey.

Republicans' chances of winning the Senate could be diminished, though, if they fail to win over Nebraska. While Democrats will play defense this fall in more Senate seats than the GOP, Republican candidates have struggled to catch fire in some states that had been previously seen as opportunities, narrowing the party's pathway to a majority.

While Fischer's victory would seem at first glance to fall along the fault lines in 2010 Senate primaries, which pitted less-experienced conservative insurgents against establishment-backed Republicans, the three-way primary in Nebraska made for a more complex breakdown in political loyalties. 

Bruning had raised the most money and developed the most extensive organization. Both Rick Santorum, the erstwhile presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had endorsed Bruning, giving him particular heft among the state’s social conservatives.

Stenberg, who had hoping the fourth time was a charm in his bid to win a Senate seat, won the backing of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a conservative kingmaker in primary races, along with the fiscally conservative Club for Growth.

Both Bruning and Stenberg had been fighting intensely in the GOP primary for much of the past year, aided in part by outside groups who have assisted each candidate.