VALENTINE, Neb. (AP) — With roughly 35 million head of cattle grazing on nearly half the state's land, ranching retains an iconic status in Nebraska.
So it's no surprise that Republican U.S. Senate candidate Deb Fischer's campaign ads show her leaning up against fence posts while she's described as a rancher who is "sharp as barb wire, tougher than a cedar fence post."
Her opponent, Democrat Bob Kerrey, is a former governor and senator who for a decade was president of a university in New York. Fischer's campaign frequently emphasizes the contrast between their occupations, clearly betting that it will play well with Nebraska voters who have become more conservative and suspicious of government since Kerrey left the Senate in January 2001.
But Democrats have worked to find a downside to the ranching life, and their campaign attacks have made the Nebraska race unlike any other this election season. In addition to health care reform and the economy, the staples of the 2012 campaign, the race has focused on agricultural "welfare" — specifically the government arrangements that allow some ranchers to use federal land at below-market rates.
Fischer's ranch in isolated north-central Nebraska, pays less than $5,000 a year to graze 1,000 cattle on about 11,000 acres of federal land. That's far less than the more than $110,000 the Fischers would have to pay a private landowner for those grazing privileges.
Democrats, who claim the difference has amounted to nearly $3 million in savings to the Fischers since 1973, have dubbed Fischer a millionaire "welfare rancher." One super political action committee, End the Gridlock, recently spent more than $300,000 on television and radio ads that criticize Fischer for taking advantage of federal grazing rules.
It's unclear whether the claim is hurting Fischer. Polls indicate she retains a solid lead in the race. But the issue shows how Democrats in the Great Plains states are trying to adapt to the region's anti-government sentiment and to their party's image as the tool of federal excess. Republicans who have won most of the elections in the region recently have hammered away at government spending and many ran as "outsiders."
In its attacks on Fischer, Democrats are attempting to show conservative voters that Republican candidates also can rely on government. But in picking on ranchers and their perks, they've chosen a tough target.
Kerrey, who moved back to Nebraska this spring and bought a house in Omaha in May, acknowledged that being a rancher in Nebraska is "a good thing to have on your resume."
Daniel Keylin, Fischer's campaign spokesman, said the Democratic campaign is running against the basic fabric of Nebraska.
"One third of the jobs in the state are created by agriculture, so it still has a huge impact on Nebraska," he said.
But Kerrey's backers say that dissatisfied voters must recognize that even a rancher can also be part of the problem rather than the solution for government pork.
Dan Morgan, a longtime Kerrey backer and former Democratic National Committeeman for Nebraska, called the federal grazing system "a dirty little secret," and argued it's hypocritical for Fischer to rail against federal programs.
In her campaign, Fischer often says Congress' "first priority must be to cut federal spending." But asked about federal grazing, she leans back in her seat, rolling her eyes.
"We pay the bill that they send us. We follow the rules that they put out there ... to manage the land," she said.
Of Nebraska's roughly 20,000 beef producers, 136 hold permits for federal grazing land in the state. Few hold the permits because Nebraska has little of the nation's federal grazing land — slightly more than 1 percent with nearly 353,000 acres. By comparison, neighboring Wyoming holds 48 percent — nearly 17 million acres — of U.S. grazing land.
The Fischer ranch obtained its permit through Bruce Fischer in 1959, some 13 years before Deb Fischer married into the family.
The formula for calculating the grazing fee uses a 1966 base value of $1.23 for each grazing cow and calf pair and is adjusted based on a number of factors, such as beef prices and cost of production, but the rate hasn't risen above $2 per cow/calf pair for 30 years.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated in 2004 that it cost taxpayers about $140 million a year for federal agencies to manage federal grazing lands. Grazing permits and leases generated only about $21 million.
Fischer's supporters say the deal is less of a perk than it seems. Permit-holders must agree to maintain that land for wildlife and native plant preservation. Federal land also tends to be of lower quality than private pastureland.
"That's why homesteaders never claimed it," said Valentine commodities broker and lifelong Republican Dick Tetherow.
Fischer said she's open to suggestions that the government should put its grazing land up for auction. The current officeholder, retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, has introduced a measure that would make government grazing fees comparable to private rates.
But Fischer said comparing federal agriculture programs to welfare is offensive to rural residents and will backfire.
"I don't think the thousands of farmers that we have in this state would appreciate comments like that," she said.
Fischer's blunt rebuff of such question matches her no-nonsense reputation, earned over years as a rancher, local school board member, two-term state legislator and mother to three boys. Her oldest son, Adam Fischer, described his 62-year-old mother as "the enforcer" in the family when any of the boys misbehaved growing up on Sunny Slope Ranch, a sprawling operation of 10,000 acres of rolling, grass-covered prairie.
The ranching life was new to Fischer in 1972, when the daughter of a Lincoln school teacher and a highway department administrator cut her college education short to marry Bruce Fischer and move to rural Valentine — the largest town for a 130-mile radius with 2,700 residents — to help run the family ranch.
Fischer takes full advantage of her ranching occupation, appearing in campaign ads on horseback and dressed in a denim shirt and canvas ranch jacket. But she spends most of her time these days on the campaign trail in a dark business suit and heels.
Fischer can also exude a harsh edge, often sporting a furrowed brow or pursed lips — a stark contrast to the affable style of Kerrey. But her demeanor has softened over the course of the campaign — as seen in her first debate with Kerrey when she drew laughs by jokingly admonishing Kerrey to be nice when he warned she might be offended by his questions. And while Kerrey tosses off references to a litany of policy proposals and drops the names of those who've shaped the course of world events over three decades, Fischer appeals to Nebraska's ever-growing conservative base with elementary calls to cut government spending and repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Kerrey acknowledges "there's a romance with the cowboys," but said there's more to Nebraska than its vast rural, agricultural sector, and more to the Senate. He noted that more than half the state's residents live in the Omaha and Lincoln areas.
"Do you understand the needs of urban Nebraska? You don't have to go to New York to understand the importance of the community colleges, of the University of Nebraska," he said. "Omaha is a long way from Valentine."
Republicans seem confident Nebraska voters will embrace a rural candidate, just as they did in the primary when Fischer beat the state attorney general and treasurer — both lawyers — for the Republican nomination.
"That has real appeal, and it's legitimate appeal," said David Kramer, a former Nebraska GOP chairman.
Beaumont reported from Omaha, Neb.