In the latest issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, which went online early this morning, I have an article about the Nebraska Senate race. In a nutshell, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is trying to give a boost to one of the candidates due to some disagreements with outside conservative groups. This is problematic because there are two solid candidates in the race and it's an open primary -- and voters tend to resent meddling by the national party. Despite the intervention of the national GOP, both men in the race are running against "the establishment" and trying to claim the mantle of conservative purity.
The revelations in the article appear to have spooked Nebraska Senate candidate Shane Osborn, who appears to be attempting to preempt the revelation in THE WEEKLY STANDAD that the securities firm he is a partner in is profiting off of TARP, the $400 billion taxpayer-funded bailout program.
Osborn--who is being funded by lobbyists aligned with the Senate Republican leadership--has long been trying to paint the other contender, former Bush administration Health and Human Services official Ben Sasse, as lacking in conservative bona fides because of favorable things he's said about Medicare Part D, which conservatives criticize as an unfunded entitlement.
In the course of reporting all of this, I noted that Shane Osborn has his own issues with conservative purity. He says he's opposed to all government bailouts, yet he's the chief marketing officer and a partner in a firm, Academy Securities, that got a contract from the Treasury Department last year to sell a billion dollars worth of GM stock. Osborn says he's only licensed to sell municipal bonds and the compensation structure at the firm is such that he doesn't profit off of the GM sale. As far as I can tell, Osborn's connection to TARP was a new revelation.
So imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to see a story in Politico headlined, "Ben Sasse aided firm implementing Obamacare." Sasse has run hard against Obamacare, so the idea that he'd help implement it is potentially damaging. Here's the crux of the allegations:
Sasse provided early “strategic advice” to former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt’s health care consulting firm while the firm pitched itself to clients in early 2010 to help implement the Affordable Care Act. Sasse is listed, along with his photograph and biography, as a “senior advisor” under the heading “Leavitt Partners team” in PowerPoint presentations from April and May 2010 in which Leavitt’s firm sold its Obamacare expertise. ...
The extent of Sasse’s involvement with Leavitt Partners is unclear — both the Sasse campaign and Leavitt’s firm insist he was never paid by the firm. But two former Leavitt managing directors recall appearing with him on company-sponsored panels. And a Leavitt official said the firm used the “senior advisor” designation “very loosely, but only in order to avoid confusion with our clients.”
Sasse and Leavitt have until now denied the Senate candidate had any involvement in Leavitt Partners.
This story is a classic example of what political hacks and reporters like to call an "oppo dump," shorthand for the opposition research files on rival candidates that are peddled to reporters. Bear in mind, there's typically nothing wrong or unseemly with giving information about candidates to reporters, so long as it's true.
But in this case, it seems to be a classic case of campaign gamesmanship. The Politico reporter seems to be under the impression that the connection between Sasse and former HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt's firm hadn't been reported "until now." That's not true. In fact, this same exact story was reported by the Washington Post back in November:
Sasse was listed by Leavitt Partners in an April 2010 PowerPoint presentation as a "senior advisor" to the firm. Sasse's campaign disputes that he ever worked for the firm and emphasizes that its candidate wasn't involved in implementing the exchanges. "Ben Sasse has never worked for Leavitt Partners or received a dime from Leavitt Partners for any work, etc.," Grassmeyer e-mails The Fix. "We cannot control what some intern may have mistakenly put in a PowerPoint or on a tent card from three years ago."
According to Politico, "Osborn’s campaign declined to comment for the record" but it's not a stretch to surmise that the Osborn campaign or someone close to it was peddling this story last fall, and now they're peddling it again. It doesn't help that the former chairman of the Nebraska Republican party sent an email last November accusing the Osborn campaign of lacking integrity and "using the media to do his dirty work, and then refusing to discuss his negative attacks when given the chance to do so." With the revelations about Osborn's firm profiting off of TARP also breaking this morning, it is highly unlikely the timing of this repackaged attack on Sasse is a coincidence.
According to a statement from Sasse's campaign, "Politico recycled an old story that the Obsorn campaign has been peddling for months. Ben spoke on a panel (unpaid) about Health IT/Wellness at the request of an old boss. Ben never worked to implement ObamaCare, he never aided anyone in implementing ObamaCare. He spoke on a panel. That's it. We have always said this. There is no new information here."
So what we have here are dueling allegations. In the case of Sasse, his connection to Leavitt's firm is that he once appeared on power point slide the firm used, appeared on at least one panel discussion and had business related conversations with his former boss at HHS. Both Leavitt and Sasse say he was never paid for any of this.
In the case of Osborn, he was chief marketing officer for Academy Securities when they signed a billion dollar deal to sell stock as part of Treasury's bailout program. His campaign says he "stepped back" from his role at the firm last March, but that's only an informal arrangement. He's still listed on the company website and more recent disclosure forms list him as affiliated. Even if he doesn't directly profit of the TARP sale, he's still a partner in the firm and could conceivably benefit from the sale in other ways.
It's been a bad week for the Osborn campaign. On Wednesday, Sasse was endorsed by Sarah Palin, adding to a list of endorsements that includes Mike Lee, Tom Coburn, Paul Ryan, Mark Levin, and National Review. Further, a new Nebraska Senate poll released this week by Breitbart News/The Polling Company shows Osborn up 35 to 24 percent, but the poll is ultimately troubling for Osborn. He appears to be benefiting largely from the name recognition that comes with having previously elected in the state.
In the same poll, Sasse is up handily among voters who have heard of both candidates and up a whopping 21 points among candidates who have opinions about both. Sasse is significantly outstripping Osborn in fundraising, so building his name recognition likely won't be a problem.