WASHINGTON — Nebraska has been dubbed a “sleeper” Senate race and rated as competitive by some handicappers. House Democrats just came close to winning a special election in a congressional district President Donald Trump won by 21 points, so how vulnerable is GOP Sen. Deb Fischer?
At a minimum, the senator faces a spirited challenge from Lincoln City Council member Jane Raybould, a Democrat. But the perception that Nebraska is a legitimate Democratic takeover opportunity seems to lean on the proclamation that no Republican seat is safe and limited public polling. Other evidence, including previously unreleased polling from the Fischer campaign, paints a different picture of the race.
According to an automated survey by Public Policy Polling for the Raybould campaign, conducted Nov. 10-12, 35 percent of Nebraska voters approved of the job Fischer was doing while 45 percent disapproved. The senator led Raybould 42 percent to 31 percent in a hypothetical general election ballot test. A more recent poll, conducted March 4-5 by JMC Analytics, showed Fischer’s job rating at 34 percent approve and 42 percent disapprove.
A Jan. 24-28 poll of 500 likely voters conducted by Meeting Street Research for the Fischer campaign, however, showed the senator with a 51 percent to 34 percent advantage over Raybould in a head-to-head matchup and Republicans with a 47 percent to 32 percent edge in the statewide generic ballot.
In addition, the poll showed Trump with a 53 percent job approval rating in Nebraska, when his national job approval rating was 40 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
Fischer’s supporters admit she has some work to do to improve her statewide profile, but the senator’s campaign is engaged, raising money, staffing up, and just started digital and radio ads to boost her standing.
Even in a potentially-toxic political environment for the president’s party, Fischer still has the partisan lean of Nebraska on her side.
Trump won the Cornhusker State by 25 points in 2016. No Democrat has won statewide going back to 2010, and Republicans’ average margin of victory statewide has been 31 percent over that time period. The closest recent statewide race was in 2012, when Fischer won Democrat Ben Nelson’s open seat 58 percent to 42 percent over former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey. That was the same year presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the state 60 percent to 38 percent.
One way for Democrats to win GOP-leaning areas is to take advantage of fracture in the Republican Party. But Fischer is poised for a strong showing in the May 15 Republican primary, considering none of her opponents had more than $13,000 in campaign funds at the end of March, while the senator had $2.6 million in the bank. Six years ago, Fischer won the GOP nomination with 41 percent.
Some Republicans are concerned about depressed GOP turnout in the rural 3rd District because of Trump’s tariff policy and its impact on agriculture interests. Fischer can’t take those voters for granted.
GOP members in traditionally Republican states can become vulnerable if they’re overwhelmed by Democratic cash. But unlike Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke or former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, Raybould’s campaign has yet to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of the Democratic faithful. She had a modest $333,000 in her campaign account on March 31.
Her campaign attacked Fischer for the lack of individual contributors from Nebraskans, but there’s a limited amount of money to be raised in the state, according to Nebraska sources. So eventually, Raybould will have to expand her fundraising base outside the state. Raybould doesn’t have to match the senator’s cash, but the Democrat will need to improve her financial position, considering national Democratic money will prioritize protecting incumbents, including an expensive race in Florida.
Beyond the fundraising, it’s also unclear whether Raybould has the right profile to win the state. She’s running as an independent voice, pointing to her experience in the family grocery business, rather than moderating on issues. For example, she publicly came out in support of renewing the assault weapons ban.
Additionally, the state AFL-CIO declined to endorse Raybould in the Senate primary (while weighing in on 10 other races), which could become problematic if the group’s posture is the same in a general election, when she would need every possible Democratic vote to come close statewide. And the Lincoln firefighters’ union endorsed Fischer over her likely Democratic opponent.
Incumbents can also lose by taking their re-election for granted. But Fischer is ramping up her effort with fundraising, nine campaign staff and focusing voter contact efforts in the 2nd District, where Republican Don Bacon is one of the most vulnerable House incumbents in the country. Fischer campaign manager Allison Bedell, who was field director for Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s competitive re-election bid in 2016, oversees a communications director, statewide field director, four regional field directors, campaign scheduler and state finance director.
Fischer’s campaign polling is three months old and, of course, the race could develop into a more competitive contest, but the burden of proof is still on Democrats to demonstrate this is a serious takeover opportunity.