The Tea Party is looking to Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in Nebraska to revive their primary hopes after stumbling out of the gate in last week’s contests.
National Tea Party groups went all in for Midland University President Ben Sasse in a four-way Senate primary to succeed retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R). Tuesday’s outcome won’t affect control of the seat but will be an important test of those groups’ credibility in a GOP primary.
The Nebraska race is the night’s main event to watch for hints of how much firepower the Tea Party has left this cycle. Conservative activists have also spent heavily in an open House seat in West Virginia that’s up for grabs.
Sasse emerged over a month ago as the front-runner over former state Treasurer Shane Osborn thanks to conservative support and endorsements from Tea Party stars like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sasse has been backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth and the Madison Project, among others.
Still, Sasse’s nomination is not guaranteed. Over the past two weeks, banker Sid Dinsdale, formerly a long-shot third-place candidate, has surged as a result of the bitter spat between Sasse and Osborn. Dinsdale picked up the endorsement of the Omaha World-Herald and was second in an overnight internal poll out from Sasse’s campaign last week, 11 points behind Sasse.
If Dinsdale leapfrogs both Osborn and Sasse, it could be deja vu to the 2012 open Senate race when then-candidate Deb Fischer broke through courtesy of a nasty primary competition between the two front-runners.
There’s other evidence for Dinsdale’s momentum. Over the past few weeks, groups backing Sasse, like the Club for Growth and 60 Plus Association, set their sights on the banker, launching more than half a million in ads attacking him as a “liberal,” pointing out to donations he made to Democrats and emphasizing comments he made about raising the debt limit under all circumstances.
Overall, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis, outside groups spent $1.3 million supporting Sasse and about $270,000 backing Osborn, with nearly $300,00 attacking Sasse and $489,000 attacking Osborn.
A number of Republicans said, while Dinsdale has a strong shot at the seat, he might have peaked too soon, giving outside groups enough time to establish a negative narrative about him.
While Sasse’s opponents have pointed to his time working on healthcare policy as an adviser to the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush White House as evidence that he wouldn’t be sufficiently opposed to ObamaCare if elected, those attacks have largely failed to pick up traction.
That experience was the sticking point in FreedomWorks’s initial support of Osborn over Sasse, but the grassroots group ultimately switched its endorsement to Sasse after reports revealed allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were boosting Osborn’s campaign, reportedly due to McConnell’s opposition to the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Bud Synhorst said with a crowded GOP ballot in other statewide races, the Senate contest still remains neck and neck.
“I think a lot of people are still trying to figure out who’s running for what,” he said. “It’s a three-horse race, coming around the final stretch.”
While Republicans are expected to coast to victory in November no matter who they nominate in Nebraska, the outcome of the primary in West Virginia’s 2nd District could impact the GOP’s chances there this fall.
Many of same groups backing Sasse have weighed in on behalf of former Maryland GOP Chairman Alex Mooney in a seven-way House primary for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R) seat, who’s running for Senate.
The central West Virginia district leans Republican but is the least conservative of the state’s three seats. Democrats tout attorney Nick Casey as a strong contender and think a Mooney candidacy would give them their best shot, pointing to his conservative positions and the fact that he moved to the district to run after considering a run for former Rep. Roscoe Bartlett’s (R-Md.) seat last cycle.
Mooney’s cross-state move has played heavily in attacks from his main GOP opponents, pharmacist Ken Reed and former U.S. International Trade Commissioner Charlotte Lane.
But the Senate Conservatives Fund, Madison Project and Citizens United have all endorsed Mooney and launched a final $80,000 advertising push for the candidate in the closing weeks.
Establishment Republicans prefer Lane, whom they see as a centrist candidate in the same mold as Capito with strong credentials as a former Bush official.
Lane’s candidacy is also an opportunity for the GOP to add another female candidate to its ranks in a cycle that has seen Republican female candidates frequently lose in primaries. She’s nabbed the support of a handful of female Republican lawmakers and a pro-GOP outside group, Women Lead, has spent on her candidacy.
Still, both Mooney and Reed started May with considerably more cash in the bank than Lane, posting more than $213,000 and nearly $275,000, respectively, to Lane’s nearly $90,000.
While Lane is at a cash disadvantage heading into the primary, she looks to benefit from the geographic breakdown in the race. Her base of support is centered in Charleston, while Mooney and Reed are both vying for votes in the eastern panhandle portion of the state and risk splitting that bloc, leaving an opening for Lane to emerge as the nominee.
“Reed and Mooney will both be competing for a lot of the non-Charleston vote,” said West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas. “In a crowded primary, having a strong home base certainly plays to the advantage of a candidate.”