As Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race enters the homestretch, Democrat Bob Kerrey and Republican Deb Fischer are trying to win over the state’s voters with approaches that differ in both substance and style.
On a recent late afternoon in the Plattsmouth post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the emcee was still arranging chairs when Bob Kerrey burst into the room. He greeted the crowd, and started talking almost immediately, beginning with lessons he learned in the military.
Then, the former governor and senator mentioned the fact he’s lived outside Nebraska since retiring from the Senate in 2001. Kerrey ties his experience back to his Nebraska roots. “You may have heard on the news that I’ve been in New York City for the last 11 years – 10 of which was running a university. And every year a newly-arriving class of 18-year-olds would show up, and for the first time they’ve got freedom. And I would say that to them…‘It’s a big challenge. Because you can get in trouble with bad choices.’ And not just in Manhattan. I was at the University of Nebraska from ‘61 to ‘65. You can get in trouble there,” Kerrey said, as the crowd chuckled along.
Eighty miles west and a couple of days later at Concordia University in Seward, Deb Fischer quietly worked her way through the crowd, introducing herself to people one at a time. “Hi, Deb Fischer. Nice to meet you,” she said to one woman, who retorted “For the third time.” The woman tells Fischer she met her at a parade in Auburn, while a companion explains, “She (Fischer) gets around.”
When she finally worked her way to the front of the room, Fischer talked about learning by listening, and reminded people of what she’s been doing the last eight years – serving as a state senator representing a Sandhills’ district that’s bigger than the state of New Jersey.
Fischer said she’s continued to rack up the miles in this campaign. “That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been traveling the state – I think we have over 71,000 miles on the vehicle now. And that’s how you campaign in Nebraska. That’s how you serve Nebraska,” she said.
Fischer said Nebraskans tell her they’re concerned about government overspending. She said she wants a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. That’s something Kerrey has said would require devastating cuts to everything from the military to crop insurance.
Kerrey said he wants to balance budget cuts with higher taxes on upper incomes, a course Fischer has said will restrict economic growth without doing much to cut the deficit.
While the candidates discuss these differences on the ground, they’ve been fighting a different kind of battle in the air, where Kerrey has sponsored a television ad criticizing Fischer’s role in a land dispute
“First, Deb Fischer sued her elderly neighbors to take their land. The courts stopped her. Then, as a member of the Unicameral, Fischer fought the sale of the same Kime ranch and helped keep it from becoming a state park. Deb Fischer abused her political power,” the ad declared.
Fischer has responded with her own ad, criticizing Kerrey for raising the issue. “Campaigns should be about ideas, not personal attacks. Bob Kerrey’s attacks on my family are an example of what’s wrong with Washington politics. Our family needed to clarify a boundary line with a neighbor, and we sought legal clarification. We then followed the legal ruling,” the ad said.
Fischer also said the legislation Kerrey’s ad referred to wasn’t intended to prevent the state park idea, which failed for other reasons.
At the Plattsmouth town hall meeting, Kerrey said he wants to stress balancing the budget and congressional reform as the campaign comes to a close. If so, a reporter asked, why target Fischer’s land dispute?
“I think it’s a character issue,” he replied. “I think it very much connects with the way she’s approaching this budget deficit: very soothing tones about protecting seniors and keeping commitments to veterans and so forth.”
Fischer suggested the ads are a distraction. “I find it very disappointing that Mr. Kerrey focusses on negative attack ads. I think it’s sad that we have a former United States senator who has stooped to that level. Because Nebraskans want to hear about the issues. That’s what they talk to me about,” she said.
Those issue discussions sometimes let the candidates’ personalities shine through. At the Concordia University discussion, Fischer had a joking exchange with a voter who said even since the Great Recession that began in December, 2007, Nebraska had a peak unemployment rate of only five percent. “No, no,” Fischer said. "We were four (percent)." But then she smiled and quickly added, “I shouldn’t be correcting you because you haven’t asked the question yet and it will probably be horrible now. Go ahead,” she urged, as the crowd laughed.
Actually Nebraska’s unemployment rate peaked at a seasonally adjusted 4.9 percent in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But rounding differences aside, the exchange was typical of the cool, methodical, yet sometimes lighthearted way Fischer ran the encounter.
By contrast, the Kerrey event was a relatively raucous affair, with audience members sometimes arguing with each other. One man called for curtailing U.S. military involvement overseas. Another tried to provide counterarguments: “October 2000, nothing happened, the Cole was bombed. Eleven months later, the World Trade Centers get bombed. See what happens? You don’t send a military presence, the s—t’s just gonna keep happening,” he said.
“He (Kerrey) was on the 9-11 Commission. He knows that,” another man responded, as the crowd took sides before a bemused Kerrey jumped in. “This is fun!” he said. “This is the way a town hall meeting ought to be.”
Kerrey said later he’s glad he decided to run for office again. “This was a close call for me to come back into politics. And I’m glad I did. I don’t regret it. It was a very lively discussion here today. And I enjoy it. It reinforces in me the decision that I made to reenter politics. I do enjoy it and I think that I’m relatively good at it,” he said.
Fischer, too, said she enjoys the campaign. “Nebraskans are such a warm and welcoming group of folks. When we pull up at a gas station, if I don’t go in and talk to the guys having coffee, somebody’ll knock on the window when we’re filling up with gas to talk to me. It’s just the best part,” she said.
Which candidate’s style and positions the voters prefer will be determined on Election Day.
Hear more from these candidates as part of our special election project "Campaign Connection 2012: Voter Voices." Listen as they answer questions from Nebraska citizens on one-hour election special you can watch on our website. You can also watch the one-hour NET News Nebraska U.S. Senate Debate on our website as well.