Republicans campaign for U.S. Senate seat: Part 1

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April 3rd, 2012

Omaha, NE – A crowded field of Republicans is running for Nebraska’s open U.S. Senate seat. In the next two days, we’ll follow the four candidates who are most actively campaigning in the primary and give you a sense of what they’re saying and doing on the campaign trail. For part one of this Signature Story series, Mike Tobias caught up with Jon Bruning and Deb Fischer.

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U.S. Senate candidate Jon Bruning is working an early-evening crowd in the clubhouse of a west Omaha apartment complex. It’s a candidate night sponsored by a local Republican group, an event that feels like a pot luck dinner gathering for old friends, if you take away the campaign signs and flyers. It’s a brief appearance for Bruning, who would leave for another commitment before the start of a Q&A panel with other Senate candidates. But he’s making use of the pre-panel social hour to talk with guests about things like the Federal budget and debt.

Bruning’s no stranger to these kinds of events.

Jon Bruning is a U.S. Senate candidate. (Photo courtesy Jon Bruning campaign)

A 42-year-old Lincoln native with a University of Nebraska-Lincoln law degree, he’s held elected offices since 1996. After six years in the state legislature, he’s been attorney general for the last decade. He briefly ran for Senate in 2008, but dropped out after Republican Mike Johanns entered the race.

“I know that the reason I’m running is to reduce the size and scope of government,” Bruning said. “For me, it was never about, How do I create a path to the United States Senate?’ It was about serving the people of Nebraska. So for me, the way we make it better is we get government out of the way. We reduce the regulatory burden; we reduce the size and scope of government; repeal Obamacare.’

“That’s what’s driving me, and I think that’s what Nebraskans care about.”

These messages are common refrains for Republicans this election, and at the Omaha gathering, Bruning repeated them often. But he also talked a lot about Bob Kerrey, the highest-profile Democratic candidate in the Senate race.

“I like Bob. I respect Bob,” Bruning told one Republican at the event. “But there are very clear differences in where we stand on the issues. It’s not going to be an angry, personal thing with me.”

Bruning said in spite of the focus on Kerrey, he doesn’t assume the primary is already won.

“I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said. “You never take anybody’s votes for granted. I think it’s clear that Nebraskans want to put their best foot forward, as far as Nebraska Republicans, and I’m confident that I’ll be that person when the votes are cast in May.”

Bruning is the clear Republican frontrunner when it comes to resources. With more than $1.5 million on hand at the start of this year, his war chest was significantly larger than the other Republicans combined.

But Deb Fischer hopes hard work can trump monetary disadvantage. On this day, she’s speaking to a few dozen Republicans at the weekly Greater Omaha Pachyderm Luncheon.

“What I’ve heard from people across this state is their concerns, and their frustrations, and their anger about the direction that this country is headed,” Fischer told the group. “And I share those concerns. I believe that not only are we in a financial crisis, but we are in a crisis of leadership in this country. And I can tell you that Nebraskans are fed up.”

Deb Fischer is a U.S Senate candidate. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Events like this account for part of the 30,000 miles Fischer said she’s traveled in Nebraska since announcing her U.S. Senate bid last summer. But long hours on the road are nothing new for this 61-year-old state senator who represents the largest district, geographically, in Nebraska. Fischer’s family ranches just outside Valentine, and she’s nearing the end of her second term in the unicameral, where she chairs the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Her background also includes earning an education degree from UNL and serving as president of the Nebraska Association of School Boards.

“I’m not the usual candidate,” Fischer said. “I’m not the usual politician. I have not been running for office forever. I haven’t served in government forever, and I think that’s important because if we’re going to change how Washington does business, we need to change the type of person that we’re going to send there.

“So I’m offering voters a choice of someone who understands real life, what it’s like to raise a family and grow a business and volunteer in your community,” she continued. “That’s what I’ve done.”

Fischer said she hoped this message would separate her from other Republicans in the primary field, candidates who share her views on things like debt reduction, reduced spending, limited government and repealing the so-called “Obamacare” health care law. So to this group of Republicans, she’s talking about her legislative accomplishments, which she said include passing bills dealing with tax relief, eminent domain abuse and occupation taxes on telecommunications.

“I work hard with my colleagues in building consensus,” Fischer said. “I understand the legislative process, the legislative arena. That’s what the United States Senate is, and I think I’m pretty good at it.”

Fischer acknowledged that funds and name recognition create challenges for her Senate primary bid – whether she can overcome these will be decided in May.

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