The emphasis from both front-runners in the Nebraska Republican Senate primary on “Nebraska nice” belies a battle that’s seething below the surface over which candidate is the true outsider in the race.

FreedomWorks’s decision on Friday to switch endorsements from former state Treasurer Shane Osborn to Midland University President Ben SasseBen SasseTrump goes after Cassidy after senator says he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Invoking 'Big Tech' as an accusation can endanger American security Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE in the open primary to succeed retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R) was the latest development to emphasize the bitter tension ahead of the May 13 election. 


Sasse now has the backing of all the major national conservative groups — including the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund — that have weighed in on the race after FreedomWorks alleged that Osborn had “formed allegiances with [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell and the K Street lobbying class.” According to reports, McConnell is opposed to Sasse’s candidacy and his allies are working behind the scenes to help Osborn.

The shift in the race has brought back into focus the reason FreedomWorks made its initial pick, criticizing Sasse’s previous support for Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program that’s controversial among conservatives. Sasse described the plan as a model for healthcare reform in a 2009 op-ed, which he penned after working as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under former President George W. Bush. 

The change from Osborn to Sasse also upended FreedomWorks, resulting in the departure of Dean Clancy, the grassroots group’s vice president of public policy. Clancy wrote multiple blog posts outlining what he saw as Sasse’s hypocrisy over healthcare reform, and sources say his departure arose from his belief that Sasse would just be another government technocrat when it came to the issue.

Sasse told The Hill he thinks it’s clear that Osborn is the D.C. pick.

“It’s pretty obvious that the K Street establishment lobbyists think one guy is a candidate who will play ball and that Ben Sasse is a candidate that wouldn’t play ball,” he said. “The question is whether or not you think Washington, D.C., is the center of the world. If we win, we’re not going to move there — I’d be a commuter because this is our community.”

Sasse noted, however, that he’s “never disputed that I’ve done some things in the past in Washington and that I care about good policy.”

Sasse indeed worked in Washington for the Department of Health and Human Services, fueling the technocrat charge from Clancy and others. Sasse also reportedly advised former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt’s healthcare consulting firm while the firm was selling itself to help implement ObamaCare, though Sasse has said he was never paid by the firm and that documents labeling him an adviser were mistaken.

Sasse worked on former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s transition team as well, according to the book Romney Readiness Project: Retrospective & Lessons Learned, which outlined the process and outcome of the transition efforts that ultimately were never implemented.

The book described Sasse as one of two experts who formed the “core” of a team “put in place to carry out the preliminary scoping and planning associated with the design of the White House.”

In the book, he’s quoted as calling the experience “intellectually fascinating.” His campaign says he worked on the transition efforts unpaid from July through the election and visited Boston two or three times. Sasse also said he never asked for nor wanted a job in the prospective Romney administration because he was fully engaged in turning Midland University around.

His healthcare alternative has numerous similarities to the one the former Massachusetts governor offered during his 2012 campaign. 

Most of the similarities entail common Republican proposals for healthcare reform, like his proposals to promote investment in health savings accounts by raising contribution limits and expanding the expenses covered by them, capping non-economic damages in medical malpractice suits and changing Medicare to a defined contribution system. 

The plan also proposes raising Medicare premiums for the wealthy, a plank that will likely receive some pushback from conservatives. And it includes a few small suggestions, like removing Social Security numbers from Medicare cards, that are actually in the process of being implemented under ObamaCare.

One conservative operative said the plan “reads like something that Paul Ryan would’ve put together. They’re all in the same universe there, it’s a more technocratic than libertarian approach.” 

Sasse’s campaign manager, Tyler Grassmeyer, said the suggestion that Sasse isn’t for free-market solutions to healthcare is “laughable.”

“Ben’s plan is all about putting families and patients in charge of their healthcare — not government central planners and big insurance companies. Before someone criticizes Ben’s plan, they should read it first,” he said.

The fight for the outsider mantle has ushered in a new leg of the campaign, with both candidates becoming increasingly combative where they once were careful to avoid direct attacks. 

Sasse implicitly hit Osborn in his interview with The Hill, and Osborn directly knocked his opponent’s record in an email to The Hill.

“Ben Sasse claims to be the candidate who will take on Washington, D.C., yet his record demonstrates something entirely different,” said Osborn, arguing he’s “the only candidate who is not of Washington, never worked in Washington, and will fight Washington.”

But the nitty-gritty of Sasse’s establishment ties don’t appear to be hitting home in Nebraska. Sasse has surged since entering the race, from single-digit support to just 11 points behind Osborn in a recent poll.

Aaron Trost, Sen. Deb Fischer’s (R-Neb.) former campaign manager, who has done consulting work for SCF before, said it seemed so far that Sasse had been successful in marketing himself as the outsider candidate. That, he said, likely fueled his growing support, and that the Navy veteran’s focus on his military career might be too narrow.

“Ben Sasse’s campaign is about something — it’s about opposing ObamaCare. I think Shane Osborn’s campaign has been, ‘I’m a military hero.’ I think what the base wants right now is someone who’s going to fight against Obama,” he said.

Osborn’s primary asset in the race thus far — his military service — has taken a hit in recent weeks as detractors raised questions about his decision-making abilities and it was reported that a military memo produced to defend his actions in the Navy was written as a favor to a friend.

He could be shifting toward a new message: In the ad released last week, he focused on his time as treasurer and touted his work to cut spending. 

Trost said with the launch of advertising from Sasse supporters and Osborn’s campaign last week, the race is likely to shift in the coming weeks.

“Nebraska’s races are always wide open. They’re going to be volatile. Anybody who thinks that they’re going to win is going to be surprised,” he said. “It’s one of those states where people make up their minds late.”

—This piece was updated at 12:30 to reflect Trost's connections to SCF.