Tea party hoping for big win in Nebraska primary, but dark horse looms

Whoever wins the Republican Senate primary in Nebraska on Tuesday is likely to win in November, and the national tea party establishment wants that seat. But the campaign has been nasty, and a third candidate is surging. 

Nati Harnik/AP
GOP-backed Senate candidate Shane Osborn (l.) and tea-party backed Ben Sasse (r.) debate in Omaha, Neb., March 11, 2014. During the debate Osborn pledged 'to support whoever wins' the four-way primary on May 13. For weeks, Osborn and Sasse have been duking it out for the Republican nomination for the seat currently held by retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R).

Washington’s tea party “establishment” has big hopes for Tuesday’s primaries in Nebraska, one of the movement’s best chances at winning a US Senate seat this cycle.

The nationally backed tea party candidate is Ben Sasse, a university president and former Bush administration official. For weeks, he and former state Treasurer Shane Osborn have been duking it out for the Republican nomination for the seat currently held by retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R).

But a third candidate – banker Sid Dinsdale – is surging, and political analysts are asking: Will history repeat itself?

“You’ve had a lot of outside money pour into the race, and a lot has shown up in attacks on Osborn or Sasse,” says Kevin Smith, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “That has let a candidate like Dinsdale fly under the radar and start picking up momentum.”

Nebraska has seen this movie before. In 2012, two heavyweights duked it out for that cycle’s GOP Senate nomination, allowing a dark horse – a rancher and state legislator named Deb Fischer – to grab the nomination from the two men. She is now Senator Fischer.

Mr. Dinsdale certainly hopes he’s the Fischer of 2014, though he's not a tea party candidate and he won’t get Sarah Palin’s endorsement, as Fischer did two years ago. This year, the former Alaska governor is on board for Mr. Sasse, as are Senate conservative stars Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mike Lee of Utah. Conservative Washington groups FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, and Senate Conservatives Fund are also in Sasse’s corner with organization and ads.

Now the outside groups are turning their fire on Dinsdale, a sign that he’s moving up in the polls, says Senator Johanns, who has not endorsed anyone in the race.

“People are sick of outside groups, they’re sick of the negative ads, they’re sick of the attacks,” Johanns told The Washington Examiner in a recent interview. Nebraska voters “realize who's been running the negative ads and that’s why I think Dinsdale is surging. He’s had clean hands in all of this.”

In a May 8 poll by Magellan Strategies, Sasse led with 38 percent of likely Republican voters, followed by Dinsdale with 24 percent and Mr. Osborn with 20 percent. The poll was posted on the website of a pro-Sasse group, the Legacy Foundation Action Fund.

Complicating matters for voters is the fact that the line between the tea party and the GOP “establishment” isn’t completely clear. While the big, national tea party groups and senators are with Sasse, some local Nebraska tea party groups are with Osborn. In mid-April, 52 Nebraska tea party leaders wrote a letter slamming the national groups for backing Sasse. FreedomWorks came in for particular criticism, after it switched its endorsement from Osborn to Sasse. It said Osborn had “formed allegiances with Mitch McConnell,” the Republicans’ leader in the Senate.

The reality, analysts say, is that the GOP establishment will be happy with whomever Nebraska Republicans nominate. That candidate is a shoo-in to win in November.

“There’s a perception that Osborn is the establishment guy, but most so-called establishment Republicans really don’t care who wins,” Brian Walsh, a former staffer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told Politico.

Osborn was seen as the early favorite, as he already had been elected statewide and has a compelling personal story. In 2001, as a Navy pilot, he gained national headlines for making an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island and being detained for 12 days. But in his Senate campaign, Osborn stumbled when he released what looked like an official Navy memo about the Hainan incident. The letter was written by a friend; Osborn called the episode a mistake.

Osborn also stumbled when his campaign released a list of 52 economists it claimed were supporting him, but it turned out some were just endorsing free-market principles.

Sasse’s profile is also mixed. He worked in the George W. Bush administration and on Capitol Hill, which led some conservatives to call him a creature of Washington. He also worked for a consulting firm that helped states build health-care exchanges, and delivered paid speeches to hospital associations that support the Affordable Care Act, according to The Wall Street Journal. Sasse’s campaign told the Journal he never profited from the law.

Sasse is now president of Midland University in Fremont, Neb.

Dinsdale’s family owns Pinnacle Bank, and he has given his campaign $1 million. But he’s presenting himself as a “real Nebraskan,” says Mr. Smith of the University of Nebraska.

“He’s saying, ‘I’m not a fancy-pants elected official, I’m not a fancy-pants university president, I’m a banker who helps farmers raise corn,’ ” says Smith. “I don’t think anyone’s mistaking Sid Dinsdale for a Wall Street titan.”

Turnout in Nebraska is expected to be decent for a primary, because there are also competitive primary races for governor and state attorney general.

The only other state holding primaries on Tuesday is West Virginia. In the race for the seat held by retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), both major parties already have presumptive nominees: Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and state Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D). In the race to replace Congresswoman Capito in the Second Congressional District, former state Democratic Party chairman Nick Casey is favored to win the Democratic nomination.

Seven candidates are competing for the Republican nomination, and the campaign has been nasty, which creates an opening for the Democrat in November. The GOP establishment favorite is former US International Trade Commissioner Charlotte Lane. National tea party groups are backing Alex Mooney, the former state GOP chairman in Maryland. A third candidate, pharmacist Ken Reed, has donated more than $500,000 to his own campaign.

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