Last Tuesday, Debra ‘Deb’ Fischer won a hotly contested Nebraska Republican primary election for the US Senate seat currently held by the retiring Ben Nelson. She beat Jon Bruning, the current Attorney General of the state, as well as third place challenger Treasurer Don Stenberg.

Most discussion on this election has focused on the surprising victory of Fischer, a rancher and sitting state senator (43rd district) who raised very little money, compared with the establishment front runner of Bruning. She was noted for being supported by former Alaska Governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Much less well known is the ideological difference between the two candidates. It turns out that Bruning was a former state senator from the 3rd district, and thus I can estimate his ideological preferences from his roll call record (see details in my paper with Nolan McCarty here, and my blog posts on this data here.)

Did Sarah Palin get the pick right? Is Fischer the more conservative choice? The answer is yes. Fischer is in 96th percentile for conservatism in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska unicameral, and in the 93rd percentile of identified Republicans. That is, only 7 percent of Nebraska Republicans are more conservative than she in recent years. If her voting behavior was unchanged in the move from statehouse to Congress, she would be somewhere between Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) ideologically speaking. That’s pretty hard-core conservative.

Jon Bruning, on the other hand, is a moderate Nebraska conservative, located close to  the middle of identified Republicans in the statehouse. That’s still fairly conservative, something close to deposed Bob Bennett of Utah or Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.

Given how conservative of a state Nebraska is, I think Republican primary voters largely got this one right. Intrade’s market on this has Republican chances of success under Fischer at 69%, same as Nate Silver’s. I think that’s about right; Bob Kerrey is a pretty weak candidate for the Democrats. Fisher is no Scott Brown. There is no need to nominate a moderate to win the general election. Therefore, it is reasonable to nominate someone more extreme and still have a high likelihood of winning the election. Of course, while breaking out their champagne glasses, Nebraska conservatives must be hoping the statewide-untested Fischer isn’t another Sharron Angle

Post Updated 5/18:

Andrew Gelman insightfully asks:

I don’t understand. Boris writes:

That is, only 7 percent of Nebraska Republicans are more conservative than [Fischer] in recent years. . . . Jon Bruning, on the other hand, is a moderate Nebraska conservative, located close to the middle of identified Republicans in the statehouse. . . .

But then he concludes:

Given how conservative of a state Nebraska is, I think Republican primary voters largely got this one right.

How is it they “got this one right” if Fischer isn’t close to the median for Nebraska Republicans? Why wouldn’t it be getting it right to choose a candidate closer to their political views?

My response:

Of course, I was being a little bit glib. But here are my thoughts on this:

Yes, proximity is the yardstick, not directionality.

I was talking about Nebraska *conservatives*, not merely Republicans. NE conservatives surely live on the right hand side of the median Nebraska Republicans. In that case, Fischer at the 93rd percentile is more proximate to the 75th percentile Republican than Bruning at the 46th!

More broadly, of course, the calculation about whom to support is not only about proximity, but also about electability. So NE conservatives should weigh the potential benefits of a Fischer victory relative to Bruning by the probability that she wins relative to him.

What goes into that probability of victory? Proximity implies she’d be a WORSE candidate than Bruning, relative to the general election median.

On the other hand, partisanship dulls the effects of proximity. Jon Rogowski and I have a paper on this, showing that the proximity model works even in congressional elections, with the proviso that partisanship heavily moderates the effect. So, the dominance of Nebraska Republicans makes them somewhat insensitive to the difference between Fischer and Bruning. You can find the latest version of the paper here.

On the other hand, while Bruning has fought and won statewide office, Fischer hasn’t. Kerry has, but a long time ago. She might be a terrible candidate. It’s a gamble that I alluded to in the last line of the post to a fear that conservatives in the state might have — what if she’s another Sharron Angle?

So, what we have is a gamble. Fischer is probably less likely to win than Bruning against Kerry. But it appears that the payoff to winning is considerably higher for hard core conservatives in the state. If the drop in electability isn’t too bad (my guess, and that of preliminary evidence from the polls and markets), than she is the “right” choice for state conservatives.

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