Neb. conservatives: Sasse isn't our pick

A group of Nebraska conservatives has penned a letter declaring Midland University President Ben Sasse isn’t their preferred Senate candidate and criticizing the involvement of national conservatives in the race.

The letter was written and organized by Patrick Bonnett, a conservative activist in the state and chairman of the Conservative Coalition of Nebraska, a coalition of conservative, libertarian and Tea Party groups in the state.

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The letter references “a barrage of radio, TV and direct mail ads from national Washington DC based PAC organizations” touting Sasse, and declares that the signees are “taking this opportunity to set the record straight.”

“Our philosophies and interests slightly differ in some ways, but on this we can all agree: Ben Sasse for US Senate is NOT the choice of conservative, libertarian, and tea party movement activists and group leaders in Nebraska. We were not consulted, polled, or contacted by these Washington DC groups such as FreedomWorks has claimed,” the letter continues.

FreedomWorks’s switch from former state Treasurer Shane Osborn to Sasse a few weeks ago is what spurred the urgent letter. The grassroots group cited reports that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a toxic figure in the conservative movement, was implicitly supporting Osborn. 

With their flip, Sasse now has the backing of nearly every major national conservative group that has weighed in on the race, including the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, as well as support from conservative leaders like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

Those endorsements have given him a boost in the competitive GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R), and in recent polling he’s caught up to Osborn, who was the original frontrunner in the race. Osborn does have the support of some national conservative figures, like social conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly. 

The conservatives write in their letter that they are “disappointed with the way DC organizations are telling Nebraskans what the Tea Party in Nebraska thinks. 

It concludes: “We find the endorsement of Ben Sasse and the claim of widespread support by Tea Party activists to be presupposed and false and we do not support him. Ben Sasse is absolutely NOT the conservative solution Nebraska needs to decrease Washington DC's power.”

The letter is signed by 52 Nebraska conservative activists, ranging from founding members of local Tea Party groups to gun rights activists to Christian conservative activists, and was sent to nearly 20,000 people in Nebraska and nationwide.

Bonnett said though he’s been an organizer for FreedomWorks through its online organizing tool for some time, he was given no advance notice of the endorsement switch and “nobody I’ve talked to has said they’ve been polled or talked to by FreedomWorks.”

“The letter is an attempt to protect the integrity of our conservative movement and to ensure that we don’t allow any one group or any one big personality to risk the credibility of all of us,” he said.

FreedomWorks spokeswoman Jacqueline Bodnar said it was “pretty clear” the letter was orchestrated by the Osborn campaign, and that while the group “appreciate[s] the feedback and the input from these 52 activists,” it’s not necessarily representative of conservatives in the state overall.

“FreedomWorks is a service center to grassroots activists. We work hard to empower local volunteers and groups at their request, not the other way around,” she said. 

“For every 50-person petition, there are thousands of conservatives, libertarians and tea party leaders who believe that Ben Sasse is the strongest choice in the Nebraska Senate primary. They have asked for our help, and we plan to continue empowering those volunteers on the ground with resources and materials as best we can,” Bodnar added.

A primary focus in the race has been a debate over who’s the true outsider candidate. Sasse supporters have pointed to Osborn’s McConnell support as evidence he’s beholden to the establishment, and Osborn supporters say Sasse’s work for the George W. Bush White House on healthcare policy and his ties to former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney both undermine his claim to that title.

The letter may indicate that those endorsements could be a double-edged sword if they frustrate grassroots organizers who feel they were left out of the process.

Another signer, Sheri Aden, Nebraska state director of the group Smart Girl Politics, told The Hill that the spate of conservative endorsements for Sasse “just reeks of elite GOP, putting someone in place without actually consulting the grassroots.”

Aden said she hadn’t seen or heard of Sasse at any Tea Party events before he jumped in the race, and since then, hadn’t seen him at any events either. His campaign couldn’t provide The Hill with a list or number of Tea Party events the candidate had attended recently, or before launching his bid, though it did tout his near-daily anti-ObamaCare town halls.

“Well, who is this guy?” Aden said. “If you’ve been a Tea Party person for five years and all of a sudden he’s getting these endorsements, where’s the Sarah Palin endorsement coming from, really? There are obviously concerns about, is he going to owe [the conservative groups] favors.”

Both Bonnett and Aden are Osborn supporters, and though they both said the letter includes signatures from supporters of the other two non-Sasse candidates in the race — banker Sid Dinsdale and attorney Bart McLeay— neither could provide specific examples.

Sasse’s campaign provided its own letter, signed by 120 people who identified themselves only as “independent grassroots activists,” declaring that Sasse “is by far the strongest, most conservative” candidate in the race and touting his healthcare alternative.

Scott Petersen, a conservative campaign operative who was chairman of the Douglas County Republican Party while Bonnett was executive director, said the letter appeared as though it was “trying to stir up a frustration” with conservatives in Nebraska, rather than reflecting real discontent.

“In reality, there’s a lot of different conservative, Tea Party, freedom organizations,” Petersen, who said he’s neutral in the race, added. “This letter looks to be more of an attempt by a campaign to try to change the discussion on endorsements.”

Underscoring the deep divide in the state, Peterson did admit that “to try to assume [Nebraska conservative groups] lean one way or another is naive.”

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