National conservative groups are duking it out in the Nebraska Republican primary, buoyed by the confidence that even the bloodiest of primary fights wouldn’t cost them a seat Democrats aren’t even contesting.
The sleepy race drew national attention on Tuesday when former state Treasurer Shane Osborn broke a prominent national conservative group away from the conservative pack, gaining the endorsement of FreedomWorks. Two other groups, Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, endorsed his opponent, Midland University President Ben Sasse.
Democrats haven’t fronted a candidate for the Nebraska seat, which is coming open with the retirement of Sen. Mike Johanns (R).
The lack of a threat from Democrats makes Nebraska a good opportunity, however, for conservative groups to put their thumb on the scale for the candidate of their choosing.
FreedomWorks hasn’t yet indicated how extensively it plans to engage in the primary, but its Vice President of Public Policy Dean Clancy said the group is “fully committed to” electing Osborn.
The central issue in the group’s endorsement, Clancy said, was Sasse’s insufficient opposition to ObamaCare.
“Sasse is doing a great ‘Wizard of Oz’ impression, presenting himself as an
anti-ObamaCare firebrand, but behind the curtain he is a Mitt Romney-style technocrat who would replace Obama-Care with more ObamaCare,” he said.
But Sasse has made his opposition to the healthcare law a central tenet of his campaign. He was labeled the “anti-ObamaCare candidate” by conservative outlet Breitbart.com.
Sasse is also currently the fundraising leader in the race, breaking Nebraska records with his $815,000 haul in the third quarter. A little less than half of the money came from Nebraskan donors.
But Osborn has a hefty lead in both polls conducted of the GOP primary, likely due to his high name recognition in the state from his time as treasurer.
Nebraska political observers say the state’s races often come down more to personality than policy.
“Personalities and retail politics are really important here in Nebraska, as are your organization, getting out there and shaking hands, especially in western Nebraska,” said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Some warn the outside endorsements could actually be harmful for the two candidates currently considered the front-runners in the race.
They point to now-Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) as evidence of the dangers of endorsement from national conservative groups.
Fischer won the 2012 Republican Senate primary over Don Stenberg, who was endorsed by FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund.
One Republican who has worked on Nebraska Senate races told The Hill that Nebraskans are wary of outside influence in their races.
“Nebraska has a kind of contrarian attitude about front-runners and conventional wisdom,” the source said.
“When these groups weigh in, it doesn’t always guarantee the candidate they’re supporting is going to win.”
Indeed, Osborn’s campaign criticized Sasse after he won the Club for Growth endorsement, painting the move as a sign his opponent was playing “the inside game in Washington.”
“Ben Sasse seems to forget that Nebraskans will be voting in this election, not the Washington elites that he spends most of his time with,” Bill Novotny, Osborn’s campaign manager, wrote in an email to Nebraska Watchdog.
In an email to The Hill, Osborn said he was “honored” to have the FreedomWorks’s endorsement, however.
“Washington doesn’t need more folks schooled in the ways of Washington; it needs folks that can go to D.C. with new blood and new ideas and really shake the place up,” Osborn said.