Nebraska battle complicates GOP effort to retake Senate

Nebraska battle complicates GOP effort to retake Senate

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. 

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DeMint has stuck fast to his claim that he would prefer to serve with 30 Republicans in the mold of Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting The Memo: Trump allies hope he can turn the page from Russian fiasco Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (R-Fla.), a rising conservative star, than with 60 Republicans like former Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who joined Democrats in 2009 before losing reelection. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump’s damage control falters Trump: 'I think I did great at the news conference' George Will calls Trump ‘sad, embarrassing wreck of a man’ MORE (R), DeMint’s home-state colleague, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats slam Trump for considering Putin’s ’absurd’ request to question Americans Judge Kavanaugh confounds the left This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation MORE (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 ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying World Former GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party MORE (Ga.), Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Appeals court nominees languish in Senate as Flake demands tariff vote On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending MORE (Ga.), Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrCongress should build upon the ABLE Act, giving more Americans with disabilities access to financial tools Christine Todd Whitman: Trump should step down over Putin press conference GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki MORE (N.C.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteNew Hampshire governor signs controversial voting bill Former Arizona senator to shepherd Supreme Court nominee through confirmation process Shut the back door to America's opioid epidemic MORE (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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting MORE (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John CornynJohn CornynDeal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate Senate must approve Justice Served Act to achieve full potential of DNA evidence The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting MORE (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.