Nebraska Senate race suddenly close. Low grazing fees an issue in the race. Update

Deb Fisher, tea party, public land rancher versus Bob Kerry, former Nebraska senator-

This was a race Republicans thought they would not have to worry about because the state has become quite red, and the retiring Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, offers Republicans a chance to pick up a seat and win the U.S. Senate.

Bob Kerry was a popular Nebraska Governor and Senator back in the day, but he went on to other things — things out of state, including a run for President of the United States. Later he became president of the New School in Manhattan.

Deb Fischer won a contested GOP primary. She was the least well known of the three candidates. She won perhaps because of her sympathy for the tea party and its anger about federal programs and subsidies. She and her husband are ranchers and their cattle range on U.S. public lands in a state where the amount of public land is much less than Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, etc.

Right at the beginning, her use of public land became an issue, an issue rarely raised in major races. Retiring Senator Nelson tried to get legislation through the fading Congress to raise grazing fees, which are not more than a token. The Wildlife News has run many articles on grazing fees, and what many outside the public ranchers see as little but a form of unjustified welfare.

Nelson failed, but former senator Kerry picked up the issue. How could this rancher advocating cutting off welfare from what the tea party sees as the many undeserving folks be on big welfare herself? According to the Omaha World-Herald, “The family of Republican Senate nominee Deb Fischer leases 11,724 acres of federal land in north-central Nebraska for about $4,700 for seven months — by some estimates about $110,000 less than the market rate for leasing private land in Cherry County.” That’s hardly using food stamps to cheat the taxpayer by using them to sneak a candy bar.

Fischer has responded by saying Kerry’s attacks on her “welfare ranching” are an attack on ranching itself, generally a popular occupation in Nebraska. However, as Senator Nelson said to Nebraska reporters, “My Amendment will require the US Forest Service and the Federal Bureau of Land Management to charge market value to those who graze livestock on public lands. As you probably know, an elite group of ranchers, I call them the ‘two-percenters,’ they currently receive about $140 million a year in federal subsidies to graze livestock on publicly-owned land. In these hard economic times, taxpayers shouldn’t be padding the pocketbooks of the elite two-percent who get a special deal that 98% of ranchers don’t.

Fischer has said that she pays what the government charges her and her husband, but then no one is suggesting she is in arrears. The issue is how little she is charged and whether she would do anything about it as a U.S. Senate while she is busy slashing the benefits others receive.

This has hardly been the only issue in the race. Traditional themes like ObamaCare, same-sex marriage, bad economy may be more important, but Kerry is unique in raising this issue that so irritates Western conservationists who resent the many privileges public land ranchers have over both wildlife, other ranchers, and citizens of the West in general.

The polls now show Bob Kerry within 2 -3 % of her in the polls.

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Update 10/31/2012. Amazing news on this race today. Former Nebraska U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, has just endorsed Democrat Bob Kerry in the race rather than the current Republican candidate, Deb Fischer.


  1. James Hamicksburg Avatar
    James Hamicksburg

    Thank you for explaining the issue here concisely. I started by looking at NE. LB229 and I wondered what Kerry meant by “Welfare Rancher”. I agree there is a serious issue with the public land grazing lease prices. This makes me more likely to vote for Kerry rather than Fischer though I like the “Tea Party”.

  2. WM Avatar

    Former Senator Kerrey (’89-2001) struck me, during that time, to be what a US Senator should be – larger than himself and concerned about the direction of our country in a positive way. Though it appears somewhat of a long shot at this stage, I hope he can pull off a squeaker win.

  3. CodyCoyote Avatar

    I have to admit I hadn’t been paying attention to Nebraska politics at all. Seemed like an oxymoron.

    The analogy being you can live right next door to your neighbors and yet know very little about them . I’m in Wyoming. The portion of my state most regressive socially conservative ( read: Puritanic )Republican is that tier along the Nebraska border.

    If Kerry pulls off an upset — choosing the seasoned proven moderate product vs. the Unknown Devil Tea Bag Lady by what I hope are reasonable minded Nebraskans — it will be a h-u-g-e repudiation of the national Republican machine by blindsiding the likes of Karl Rove , and keeping the US Senate blue. Priceless.

    I hope Nebraska comes to its senses.

  4. hayseed Avatar

    Bob Kerry is not a blue dog democrat if I recall correctly, so hopefully he will win and bring some support for his party on the hill. I too am in WY and due to the electoral college my vote doesn’t count for president. They don’t need my vote for a republican, the sheep will vote for a republican and agribusiness still reigns in WY. If I am not mistaken at least Nebraska splits the electoral votes proportionally? No one discusses the electoral college for many reasons, but it is antiquated and many of Americans votes don’t count due to it. Bob Kerry got in trouble due to his missions as a Navy Seal, which were part of the job…Hope he wins.

    1. SAP Avatar

      Bob Kerrey (that’s how he spells it) received the Medal of Honor for his service as a SEAL. His SEAL team did participate in a raid on a Viet Cong village in which civilians were killed during a nighttime firefight. Kerrey has been very forthcoming about details of that awful night.

      I’d like to see those slimebag GOPers try to say that Bob Kerrey wasn’t really a war hero, the way they “SwiftBoated” John Kerry in 04. To me, nothing illustrates the warped mentality of our electorate that people could be convinced that John Kerry was an ersatz hero, while some draft-dodging, string-pulling, coke-snorting party boy was held up as the Real Deal.

      1. skyrim Avatar

        well stated SAP. Exactly the way others see it as well.
        The John Kerry thing pissed me off big time.

      2. Mal Adapted Avatar
        Mal Adapted

        He also squired Linda Ronstadt around for awhile in the early ’80s, IIRC. I don’t suppose that’ll hurt his chances, but who knows?

        1. alf Avatar

          I know Kerrey squired Debra Winger around at about that time, but Linda Ronstadt ?

          Governor Moonbeam (Jerry Brown) and L.R. were an item for several years at about that time. Are you confusing the two ?

    2. JB Avatar


      Actually, there has been continuous discussion about whether to do away with the electoral college, but the small, rural states always get in the way. If memory serves, one senator recently proposed giving the winner of the popular vote 29 electoral votes to help “balance” any difference between the popular and electoral vote.

      1. Jeff Wegerson Avatar
        Jeff Wegerson

        See for how enough states combined possessing 270 electoral votes could by themselves get around the electoral college and cause the election of president by a simple national majority of votes counted. Rural states could not get in the way and no constitutional amendment is needed. It’s actually rather clever.

  5. Leslie Avatar

    JB, there’s a real possibility that this time Obama might not win the popular vote, but bag the electoral college. I would enjoy that twist!

  6. Craig Avatar

    Our Gov’t is so far away from the public intrest it’s scary! They will lie and promise this and that to get elected.But they do an about face when the things we all care about come up. They are in Gov’t for the money, the health care and piss on the rest of us. I do think some go in trying to do good, but end up in the red tape, lies, and deception our gov’t has become. How do you defet that? A total corruption of Gov’t has become the norm and we all bitch and moan but do nothing about it! We are screwed as a country it’s inevitable!!!


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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