In a surprising move, the influential Tea Party group FreedomWorks has withdrawn its endorsement of former Nebraska state treasurer Shane Osborn and is now endorsing former Bush administration official and Midland College president Ben Sasse in the GOP Senate primary. According to a statement from Freedomworks president Matt Kibbe:
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?
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.
In the March 24 edition of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, I wrote about how the national GOP was meddling in the Nebraska primary even though both candidates were perfectly acceptable to Republican voters. The National Republican Senatorial Committee appeared to be throwing their support behind Osborn due to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's feud with the Tea Party group Senate Conservatives Fund. The Senate Conservatives Fund had endorsed Sasse, as well as McConnell's primary challenger.
Considering how the national party had lined up behind Osborn, FreedomWorks was Osborn's only endorsement from an outside Tea Party group of real significance. FreedomWorks had also issued a number of press releases sharply criticizing Sasse, so the reversal is certainly surprising. Kibbe's statement suggests the organization had been receiving grassroots pressure to change the endorsement.
The primary election is May 13 and FreedomWorks's switch may be indicative of where the race is headed. Sasse has a significant fundraising advantage, Osborn received some very unfavorable coverage in the state's largest paper this week, and polls show significant movement in Sasse's favor. On top of all that, the Senate Conservatives Fund went up with a major ad buy on Sasse's behalf today. Sasse is running his first campaign and Osborn has previously held statewide office in Nebraska, so the race is still very much up for grabs. But Osborn's window of opportunity is narrowing just as Sasse's momentum is growing.
UPDATE: FreedomWorks VP Dean Clancy appears to have parted ways with the organization -- his twitter bio lists now him as "Ex-FreedomWorks VP." Clancy had taken the lead in the attacks on Sasse at FreedomWorks. When I wrote about the Nebraska senate race a few weeks ago, I described the situation this way:
Sasse has received criticism for favorable comments he’s made about Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program, being a model for health care reform. Though some conservatives decry the entitlement, Sasse protests that “policymakers should understand why Part D is the least bad way to run one of these programs. . . . You can say truthfully that one part of a program is decent, and yet more fundamentally that we shouldn’t have unfunded entitlement programs.” The Medicare Part D attacks on Sasse have largely been leveled by Dean Clancy at the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, which is supporting Osborn. Regardless of merit, it’s a curious argument coming from Clancy, who helped implement Part D in the Bush administration Office of Management and Budget, and was later a major pharmaceutical lobbyist.
In spite of Clancy's opposition to Sasse, there were earlier signs that FreedomWorks was not exactly united behind Osborn. When FreedomWorks CEO Matt Kibbe appeared on Glenn Beck's radio show earlier this month, he was asked why Senator Mike Lee -- who has a close association with FreedomWorks -- was endorsing Sasse instead of Osborn. Oddly, Kibbe didn't use the opportunity to forcefully back up his organization's Osborn endorsement. He praised Lee and both candidates in the Nebraska race, saying whichever candidate won the primary it would be "win-win." You can listen to the radio appearance here.