In a major blow to former Republican state Treasurer Shane Osborn’s candidacy for Nebraska Senate, national conservative group FreedomWorks is withdrawing its endorsement and backing his main primary rival, Midland University President Ben SasseBen SasseThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay CBO releases cost estimate of Biden plan Real conservatives must make a choice MORE, instead.
At issue, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in a statement, is the unspoken support Osborn is believed to have from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“Both Osborn and Sasse are great people, and this was not a decision taken lightly. The question at the heart of this decision is, who would caucus with the Freedom Caucus, and who would fall in line with the establishment?” Kibbe asked.
“At this point, it is clear that Shane Osborn formed allegiances with Mitch McConnell and the K Street lobbying class. For us, that progression away from the grassroots has tipped the balance. FreedomWorks PAC has a responsibility to endorse the most reliable candidate for liberty, and after following the evolution of this primary, it’s clear that Ben Sasse is the man for the job,” he added.
Tyler Grassmeyer, Sasse's campaign manager, said the campaign is "deeply grateful" for the group's support.
"FreedomWorks told us they've heard about our campaign from grassroots Nebraska conservatives. They've attended our anti-ObamaCare townhalls in droves, and have heard Ben forcefully make the case against ObamaCare for months," he added.
But Osborn said in a statement FreedomWorks' switch has "crystallized" the "contrast" in the race.
"I am the proven conservative candidate who will fight Washington, D.C. and Ben Sasse is the candidate of Washington, D.C. Sasse has garnered the support of Washington, D.C. special interest groups because of his long history living and working in the city," he said.
He added: “Nebraskans aren’t looking to Washington to choose their next Senator. The choice is clear for Nebraskans. I will remain focused on Nebraska voters and continue to discuss my plans to defend the Constitution and protect our conservative values.”
McConnell is reportedly opposed to Sasse’s candidacy, and the Washington Examiner has reported that McConnell's former chief of staff is raising money for Osborn, and a group of lobbyists canceled a fundraiser for Sasse after McConnell's opposition to the candidate became evident.
Sasse now has the backing of nearly all the major national conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund. He's also drawn the support of conservative leaders ranging from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Osborn does have the backing of social conservative leader Phyllis Schlafly and the anti-abortion Concerned Women PAC, among others.
FreedomWorks initially supported Osborn out of concern that Sasse wouldn't do enough to fight ObamaCare if elected, due to his work on healthcare policy during the George W. Bush administration.
But Kibbe previously hinted that he'd be happy with either candidate, saying on Glenn Beck's radio show that conservatives enjoy a "win-win" scenario in the primary.
The most recent survey of the race, conducted by Breitbart News and the Polling Company, showed Sasse down by 11 to Osborn, but he's gained ground since entering the race.
This post was corrected at 4:36 p.m. to clarify the extent of McConnell's involvement in the race.