Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer applauds her supporters with her husband… (Nati Harnik / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Upstart state Sen. Deb Fischer triumphed in Nebraska's bitterly contested Republican primary for U.S. Senate on Tuesday night, winning the right to face Democrat Bob Kerrey in November.
The race had become a high-profile showdown among tea party leaders, who split their support among three candidates. The seat being vacated by Democrat Ben Nelson is considered the GOP's best opportunity for a Senate pickup this fall.
Former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin had endorsed Fischer last week, giving the little-known rancher from the Sandhills region a boost. "The Palins are in your corner," the endorsement said. This week, former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain followed suit.
Fischer's two main opponents, state Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg, had spent months battering each other.
"In the end, call it an old-school three-way primary where two flawed candidates provided an opening for a third," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Republicans might be better off with her."
With 99% of the precincts reporting, Fischer had 41% of the vote to Bruning's nearly 36%. Stenberg had just under 19%.
Kerrey, a former governor and U.S. senator, easily won the Democratic race. Republicans tried unsuccessfully to keep him off the ballot by contesting his state residency — he had lived in New York for the last decade.
In the GOP presidential primary, Mitt Romney easily won Nebraska and Oregon, but remains short of the 1,144 delegates required to clinch the nomination.
For months, Nebraska's Senate race had been a battleground for Republican factions. President Obama is deeply unpopular here, and Nelson — among the Senate's most conservative Democrats — declined to seek a third term.
Tea Party Express and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee supported Bruning, who maintained a fundraising and organizational lead despite a barrage of negative attacks about his business investments.
Stenberg's backers included former presidential contender Rick Santorum, the Club for Growth and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's PAC. Stenberg tried to position himself as the most conservative candidate, but had trouble reaching beyond his core constituency, analysts said.
Late in the race, voter attention turned to Fischer, chairwoman of the state Senate Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. She ran a largely positive campaign, presenting herself as a fresh face.
Democrats quickly dismissed her as the "accidental nominee," saying she offered them an opportunity to take on a relatively unknown candidate as they seek to hold their slim Senate majority.
"These results set up a promising general election matchup," said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He called Fischer "an untested hypocritical politician whose record and positions have never been scrutinized."
But Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran and winner of the Medal of Honor, faces his own challenges. Aside from his recent return to the state, he has not run for office since 1994.
"Nebraska is a difficult state for any Democrat, even Kerrey, in a presidential year," Duffy wrote in an earlier analysis of the race.
On her victory night, Fischer relished the upcoming race. "It's the focus of the entire nation," she told the Associated Press. "I imagine that things will get interesting."