By Alexander Bolton - 04/27/12 10:00 AM EDT
The Senate Republican primary in Nebraska has turned into a proxy war between conservatives and establishment Republicans that could complicate efforts to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leading voice for Tea Party conservatives in Washington, has made an aggressive bid to defeat Jon Bruning, the front-runner in the primary, because of lingering doubts about his commitment to conservative principles.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), DeMint’s home-state colleague, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Senate Republican leader, and other GOP senators have supported Bruning. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also backed him.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, said GOP discord in Nebraska has helped his party’s chances of clinging to Senate control.
“In Nebraska we’re 50-50 and I think in Nebraska, once the primary is over and people get to focus on who the Republican actually is, Kerrey’s going to do even better,” he said of Democratic candidate Bob Kerrey, who represented the Cornhusker State in the Senate from 1989 to 2001.
“There’s only one state where the strong likelihood is there’s a pick-up. That’s Maine and that’s ours. You go to the next group, it includes North Dakota and Nebraska, and they’re 50-50 states, which is great for us,” Schumer said.
The Senate seat is currently held by a Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson, who has announced he will retire.
Some Republicans question whether DeMint’s strenuous intervention will do anything more than alienate a likely future colleague.
“There’s no question he’s the front-runner,” said David Kramer, a former Nebraska Republican Party chairman who ran for Senate in 2006.
“There would have to be a monumental effort for someone other than Jon to be the nominee,” he said, predicting Republicans would win in November because “Nebraska is a lot more conservative than it was 18 years ago,” when Kerrey last won election.
Yet conservatives remain concerned about Bruning’s record, and the candidate has been dogged by questions over how he amassed personal wealth while serving in public office.
“A question a lot of folks have deep down inside is whether Jon will cast a vote because he thinks it’s the right thing or because it’s the right thing for Jon,” Kramer said.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report who specializes in Senate races said Nebraska presents the best opportunity for Republicans to pick up a Democratic-held seat.
She said Bruning is favored over Kerrey, who has received less then 40 percent of support in recent polls. But she predicted Kerrey would raise a lot of money and run a very aggressive race.
Conservative advocacy groups have poured money into the race to defeat Bruning, even though his strongest rival, Don Stenberg, has raised little money on his own and his three previous bids for the Senate fell short.
Club for Growth Action has made more than $350,000 in independent expenditures opposing Bruning, according to data reported by the Federal Election Commission.
The group has run devastating ads against him. One television spot smacks him for praising the 2009 federal stimulus bill, nearly doubling his office budget and proposing an increase in car fees. Another blasts him for once calling for higher gas taxes and Social Security taxes and voting as a state senator to increase Nebraska’s sales tax.
FreedomWorks for America, a Tea Party-allied group, has spent nearly $60,000 in independent expenditures supporting Stenberg.
DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund has invested $920,000 in Stenberg by acting as a conduit for donors and making independent expenditures for him.
A spokeswoman for Bruning’s campaign said the attacks are groundless.
“Jon Bruning has widespread grassroots support from conservatives in all 93 counties across Nebraska,” said Natalie Krings, the campaign’s press secretary. “Meanwhile, Don Stenberg is relying on money from outside interest groups to help him launch false attacks on Jon’s record.
“Newspapers and fact check groups have already denounced these attacks, calling them misleading. Nebraskans know and trust Jon’s proven conservative record of eliminating wasteful spending, lowering taxes and removing burdensome regulations,” she added.
Several GOP senators have given thousands of dollars to Bruning through their leadership political action committees. Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) have given in recent months, according to Federal Election Commission records.
But DeMint, who several years ago launched a mission to elect more conservatives to the Senate, has remained staunchly opposed.
He torched the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this week for backing Bruning.
“As you may know, the Chamber supported the failed stimulus program, the Wall Street bailout, the auto bailout, cash-for-clunkers, as well as many other corporate welfare schemes,” DeMint wrote in a fundraising appeal for Stenberg. “The corporate welfare lobby in Washington wants to defeat Don Stenberg because he isn’t afraid to stand up to them.”
Anticipating the problems Bruning might face, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) scrambled to recruit David Heineman, the state’s governor, to jump into the Senate primary.
Despite the Washington lobbying campaign, Heineman opted out of the race.