You’ve probably heard of Jeff Flake, the cowboyish Arizonan. You know a bit about Tim Scott. And you definitely know Ted Cruz by now. But the fourth freshman Republican senator has dodged countless spotlights, flying under the radar and into the upper chamber of Congress. She’s Deb Fischer, she’s a rancher from Nebraska, she’s not a tea-party senator (despite what you might hear), and she’s a bit of a wonk on agricultural affairs. While Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were busily generating headlines and sparking controversy in the 2012 Senate contests, Fischer quietly beat two tea-party-backed opponents in her primary and a thick-walleted Manhattan darling in the general election.
It doesn’t really make for compelling television — while we were biting our nails over Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, Deb Fischer was beating her opponent and still beating him and beating him all the way home. She’s a Republican from a red state and she could be a star — she’s straightforward, pragmatic, and female — but she’s dodged the press as if she’s Terrence Malick or Greta Garbo. She did a short interview with a Nebraska TV station and the Hill did a feature on her as New Member of the Week, but she turned down invitations to all six Sunday shows on her first weekend in Washington.
So here’s how a rancher grandmother who grew up in a rural area ended up stiff-arming some of the most powerful journalists in the Beltway: Fischer grew up in Lincoln, Neb., married her college sweetheart, and moved to his ranch. She headed back to Lincoln when she won her first race, for the state legislature, in 2005 by 128 votes. She is against abortion and indoor-smoking bans.
Her Senate race stands out in part because, of the three primary candidates, she was the only one not to land a tea-party endorsement. Her opponents had more money and entered the race earlier than she did, but that obviously didn’t stop her.
“I knew people and people knew me, and you shouldn’t ever discount the friendships and the networking that a candidate has at the grassroots level,” she says. “You can still win a race in a state like Nebraska at the grassroots level.”
After she won the primary, she went head-to-head with Bob Kerrey, former governor and senator from the Cornhusker State who became a Manhattan transplant and president of the New School in Greenwich Village. Steve Martin made a whimsical campaign video for Kerrey, and former SNL writer Sarah Paley, a lifelong New Yorker who is Kerrey’s wife, wrote a sassy essay for Vogue bemoaning the fact that her husband’s fidelity made a move to flyover country unavoidable, should he win. On Election Day, Fischer trounced Kerrey, winning by 16 points.
Part of the Kerrey campaign’s strategy was to try to paint Fischer as an extreme-right Republican. Democrats worked hard to foist the tea-party label on her, and to an extent, it stuck. She welcomed tea-party volunteers to her campaign and says she thinks they’re “great people,” but no tea-party groups officially endorsed her in the primary, and she never described herself as a member of the movement.
“The Democrats didn’t know what to do with me after the primary,” she explains. “I was their worst nightmare. I had nothing they could attack. So they immediately tried to portray me as a tea-party candidate, or to portray some of my views as extreme. I like to say that 58 percent of Nebraskans didn’t think they were extreme views.”
So Mrs. Fischer went to Washington and commenced her freshman term in the Senate in the least extreme way possible — she turned down TV requests, voted for the Violence against Women Act but didn’t co-sponsor it, and got to know equally mild-mannered Democrats. (She describes Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine and his wife, Anne, as “good people to just sit and visit with.”) She seems uniquely unsuited for the theatricality of Washington, and that might be a good thing. The Nebraska legislature is unicameral and nonpartisan, and during her tenure there, she never held a press conference.
“Here, everything is scripted, and that’s a disappointment,” she says. “I would really like to see people in the chamber debating, but this is the United States Senate, it’s not the state of Nebraska, so I will learn to adapt.”
For now, she’s focused on a few straightforward policy goals. She came to Washington, she says, with spending restraint at the top of her agenda. She also hopes to work with Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) on energy issues, and she’s worried about the encroachment of the EPA and the Environmental Working Group on states’ rights.
One thing she’s not worried about: the so-called War on Women.
“When I’m working on something and I have a policy I want to talk about, I’ll be happy to go on these shows and visit about it,” she says. “But I’m not this oddity that needs to be put out there as a conservative woman to showcase on their programs. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to play that game.”
Everyone asks her whether the GOP has a “woman problem,” which she finds a little funny. As for the diversity she brings to the Republican caucus, her background is in her view much more important than her gender: She’s from a sparsely populated part of a rural state, and she’s a rancher, which should distinguish her from her peers in the Congress far more than the fact that she’s a woman. She feels a special kinship to other senators from rural states, especially John Thune (R., S.D.) and John Barrasso (R., Wyo.). “A lot of it’s personality — it’s just who we are,” she says. “We’re kind of blunt. We share a lot of the same history. We understand vastness.”
We’ll probably get to see more of Fischer’s bluntness as her career in the Senate unfolds. For now, though, she’ll dodge cameras and figure out Washington.
“It is what it is,” she says of the capital, “and you learn to deal with it.”
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.