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A Big Fight Over Small Differences

The powers behind the Nebraska Republican primary.

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The National Republican Senatorial Committee is mad as hell, and it’s not going to take it anymore. This is the third election cycle in a row where incumbent Republicans and the NRSC’s hand-picked candidates have faced stiff primary challenges funded by Tea Party groups. No less than Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is being primaried, and he’s made it clear what he plans to do to groups going after the national GOP. 

AP Images / J Scott Applewhite

Mitch McConnell, left

AP Images / J Scott Applewhite

“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” McConnell told the New York Times on March 8. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.” According to the Times, “The goal is to deny [outside groups] any Senate primary victories, cut into their fundraising and diminish them as a future force in Republican politics.” But there are a lot of outside groups, and McConnell’s ire is very specific. “One of the biggest obstacles to that change, however, is the Senate Conservatives Fund [SCF], a rogue political operation that has co-opted the liberty movement for its own enrichment to the detriment of the conservative cause,” he told the website TruthRevolt.

It’s understandable that he would be irked by the SCF. Aside from McConnell, the SCF is targeting Hill veterans Thad Cochran of Mississippi (in Congress since 1973) and Pat Roberts of Kansas (since 1981). Speaking to CNN, former NRSC communications director and GOP strategist Brian Walsh lamented the SCF’s history of “propping up weak candidates and attacking Republicans under the banner of conservative purity so they can line their own pockets.” 

It’s true the SCF has helped oust establishment favorites only to have their candidates go on to underperform or become national embarrassments, notably Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell in Delaware. On the flip side, there have been a number of underwhelming NRSC-supported candidates in recent years—see Connie Mack in Florida, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, and Rick Berg in North Dakota. And the list of SCF-endorsed candidates who triumphed over national GOP opposition in recent elections is a who’s who of party superstars: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee.

This brings us to the May 13 primary for the open Senate seat in Nebraska, where the NRSC’s meddling is particularly hard to justify. The two top Republicans are Ben Sasse and Shane Osborn. Both men are impressive. Sasse is a fifth-generation Nebraskan and Yale Ph.D. He worked for Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company, specializing in crisis management and turnaround projects. Just after 9/11, he worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy. Later in the Bush administration, Sasse was an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, where he worked on initiatives to rein in entitlement spending and modernize health care, and acquired a reputation as a formidable health policy expert. He moved back to his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska, to become president of Midland College. In the last four years, Sasse rescued the college from bankruptcy, gained national attention for his tenure reforms, and doubled the college’s enrollment.

Osborn is a former Navy lieutenant commander. In April 2001, the EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft he was flying was struck by a Chinese fighter plane. Osborn managed to land safely but in Chinese territory, resulting in the first of the nascent Bush administration’s many foreign policy crises. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for courage and airmanship, and the Meritorious Service Medal for leadership as a result of the episode. Osborn was elected Nebraska state treasurer in 2006, where he trimmed budgets and developed a record as a reliable fiscal conservative. In 2009, he joined Academy Securities, where he is a partner and chief marketing officer. The successful financial services firm specializes in providing careers for veterans.

Both men are eminently quallfied for high office, and according to an Intel/Harper poll of Nebraska in February, the race between them was a dead heat. Osborn drew 30 percent support, Sasse 29 percent. A poll last week found Sasse trailing 35-24, but the pollster, Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company, says that Sasse is poised to breakout. Osborn’s early ballot strength is likely a reflection of name ID, from having been previously elected in Nebraska, says Conway. Further, Conway notes that “Sasse is up handily among voters who have an opinion of both Osborn and Sasse—he has a 21-point advantage.” With Mike Johanns retiring, there’s no incumbent. If ever there were a race where the national GOP might stand on the sidelines and let voters decide, it’s one like Nebraska’s.

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