Next Tuesday’s Nebraska Republican primary election is critical to the fight over the soul of the GOP, even if it might not impact the balance of power in the Senate.
Ben Sasse has surged in the final months over early front-runner Shane Osborn, buoyed by support from national conservative groups in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R). A Sasse loss would be a blow to those Tea Party-aligned groups, who need a win this cycle to prove their influence in competitive primaries isn’t waning.
Their nasty faceoff has raised the possibility for an upset similar to the one that launched then-candidate Deb Fischer to the Senate in 2012. Banker Sid Dinsdale said he sees an opening in the final week of the campaign as voters fed up with the negativity of both Osborn’s and Sasse’s campaigns turn to him as an alternative.
Lou Ann Linehan, ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) former chief of staff, said each of the three candidates has clear assets in the race.
“Osborn’s going to get a boost from the fact that he’s the only one that served his country. Ben Sasse is a smart guy who’s run a very well-organized, volunteer-based campaign. But the Dindsale family is true Nebraska. He’s more established, older, has more gray hair, so to speak,” she said.
The issues aren’t the issue
The fundamental debates in the campaign — over which candidate would be sufficiently opposed to ObamaCare, which candidate has true roots in Nebraska and which candidate is the real grassroots pick — are still murky.
Sasse’s supporters say he’d be the best candidate to repeal and replace
ObamaCare because of his experience as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under former President George W. Bush. But it’s that experience his detractors point to as evidence he wouldn’t fight the law enough.
Osborn has highlighted comments Sasse made in op-eds and speeches that appeared to be in favor of parts of the law or reforms similar to ObamaCare as proof that the candidate has flip-flopped.
Sasse’s opponents have also emphasized his work for former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt’s healthcare consulting firm while it was helping clients implement the law, and speeches he gave to pro-ObamaCare groups as further evidence.
While Sasse’s main asset in the race, his policy work against ObamaCare, has been somewhat muddled, so has Osborn’s.
A decorated former Navy lieutenant commander, Osborn rose to national prominence after orchestrating an emergency plane landing on Chinese soil. He ultimately saved his crew but had to turn the plane over to the Chinese military to do so.
Detractors questions that decision, which could have given away intelligence information. But to justify it, his campaign circulated an official-looking naval memo defending his actions that was later revealed to have been written as a favor for an Osborn supporter to deflect critics. That development featured prominently in a new attack ad out last week from an outside group.
The candidates have also sparred over who has deeper ties to Nebraska. Osborn points to Sasse’s time spent working in Washington and his work on former Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential transition team as evidence he hasn’t spent enough time in the state.
Sasse has touted a number of state endorsements as evidence to the contrary, particularly highlighting his recent endorsement from the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
But the contours of the back and forth might not ultimately matter. Sasse has surged in the race, even after many of these details came to light.
Indeed, as FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said at one point — the group initially backed Osborn but switched to Sasse — the two candidates could ultimately be a “win-win” situation for conservatives.
A proxy battle for the soul of the GOP
Sasse has received the backing of nearly every national conservative group, but that support has been a mixed blessing.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly “lit into” Sasse for his support from the Senate Conservatives Fund, and their relationship was downhill from there.
The Senate minority leader has been actively fighting a scorched-earth campaign this cycle against the group, which has also endorsed his own primary challenger, and against other incumbents. He is aiming to prevent the group from notching a single win this year in hopes of making them obsolete in primaries.
The Nebraska Senate race became a battle in that war, even if the Republican nominee is assured a win in the solidly red state this November.
McConnell allies, including his former chief of staff, helped Osborn raise money, and a group with ties to him invested six figures in ads attacking Sasse as a “liberal” and “ObamaCare supporter.”
Justin Brasell, McConnell’s 2008 campaign manager and a founder of the group, told The Hill he hasn’t “been in contact with anyone in McConnell’s circle,” but declined to offer details on why the group jumped into the race when it did.
Other McConnell affiliates have privately pushed back against the idea that McConnell has had anything to do with the primary, noting that he hasn’t outright endorsed or contributed to any candidate.
But a win for Sasse would come at a pivotal time for conservative groups, facing long odds against establishment favorites in a handful of North Carolina and Ohio GOP primaries Tuesday.
Sasse’s nomination would give them evidence they still matter in an election cycle that has seen their influence wane, sending a solid conservative star to the Senate who will ally with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
A Cornhusker spoiler?
But a third candidate could pull a surprise on Election Day.
Dinsdale has posted some momentum over the past week, picking up the endorsement of the Omaha World-Herald and coming in just 2 points behind Osborn in a recent survey of the race conducted by Sasse’s campaign.
Dinsdale said he “never bought into the idea that I was not a contender,” and he hopes his financial background will help him stand out from the pack.
He loaned himself $925,000 for the race on April 1, even though he told the World-Herald in a piece published nine days later that “it doesn’t feel right” to self-fund his campaign.
Dinsdale defended his investment, saying he needed it to “be competitive” with the $1.8 million spent by “special interests” in the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’s latest tally.
“We have a mascot — Tiny, the largest steer in Nebraska. We’re on a no-bull, steering clear of D.C. special interests tour,” he said of his plans to barnstorm the state in the race’s final week.
There’s precedent for a come-from-behind win in Nebraska. In 2012, Fischer, a lesser known state senator, ended up nabbing the nomination after a fierce, negative primary fight between state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg.
Even Sasse campaign manager Tyler Grassmeyer said they’re taking Dinsdale seriously.
“We feel like this is a two-man race between Ben and Sid Dinsdale,” he told The Hill. “Nebraskans are going to see it’s a race between a strong conservative voice in Ben and a moderate voice in Sid Dinsdale.”
And one of Sasse’s backers, conservative commentator Erick Erickson, took note of Dinsdale and lobbed negative attacks at him on his blog over the past few days.
But Aaron Trost, Fischer’s former campaign manager who currently consults for the Senate Conservatives Fund, said that, while the atmosphere looks similar to 2012, the profile of the alternative doesn’t quite line up.
“I don’t think there’s a Deb Fischer in the Nebraska Senate race,” he said. “She’s a rancher, the only candidate from rural Nebraska, she was the only woman, the only candidate not known as a career politician where her opponents were known as being career politicians.”
Still, with just a week left, Nebraskans say anything could happen.
“It’s all about the competence. In a crowded primary like this, the last 13 days is everything and the skill of the people running the campaign and the candidates matters a lot,” Linehan said.
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