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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.

Yet there’s little doubt who the NRSC’s preferred candidate is. If you guessed it’s the former Bush administration official, endorsed by the likes of former vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Rep. Paul Ryan and Senators Tom Coburn and Mike Lee, you’d be wrong. “Looking at their records and their rhetoric, you wouldn’t be able to tell which is the candidate of the Tea Party and which is the candidate of K Street and the GOP establishment,” reported Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney in January. “But their donor lists make it crystal clear. The Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund are backing Sasse. Perhaps for that reason, K Street and the GOP establishment are bankrolling Osborn.”

Officially, the NRSC is neutral. “As far as I’m aware and have seen, the NRSC isn’t taking sides in Nebraska,” Walsh tells The Weekly Standard. “Both Osborn and Sasse have used the NRSC to host fundraisers.” That’s a bit of a red herring. Providing space for a fundraiser isn’t nearly as important as who the NRSC brings to it. In the case of Shane Osborn, some of the biggest Republican-friendly names on K Street keep showing up on his guest lists. Billy Piper, McConnell’s former chief of staff and current UnitedHealth lobbyist, has been raising money for Osborn. Carney further reports that medical device lobbyists canceled a Sasse fundraiser for fear of alienating Republican Senate leadership. “It’s no secret that Mitch McConnell and the NRSC are working behind the scenes to defeat Ben Sasse in Nebraska,” says SCF executive director Matt Hoskins.

In Osborn’s defense, precious few candidates look a gift lobbyist in the mouth and run the other way when the national party offers to help. The favoritism also hasn’t hurt Sasse’s fundraising. Sasse has raised $1.4 million compared with nearly $950,000 for Osborn, and Sasse has raised almost twice as much money from Nebraska donors.

This D.C. fundraising battle is the backdrop for a campaign in which on-the-ground rhetoric has both candidates running away from the establishment and asserting ideological purity. They haven’t always been successful. 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.

Osborn has his own problems running away from the policies of the GOP establishment. Mitch McConnell has been hammered by his Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin for calling the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.” McConnell pointed out that in his capacity as an investment fund president Bevin signed a letter calling the massive taxpayer bailout a “positive” development. And Osborn, too, has a link to TARP. “He was opposed to TARP. Pick a government bailout of an industry and he’s opposed to it,” Osborn campaign manager Bill Novotny tells The Weekly Standard. But last year, Osborn’s company Academy Securities signed a contract with the Treasury Department to sell a billion dollars’ worth of GM stock as part of the TARP program. Novotny says that Osborn “stepped back” from operations at Academy Securities as soon as he began contemplating his Senate run in March 2013, though more recent disclosure forms and the firm’s website suggest any disconnect is an informal arrangement. Further, Academy Securities was hired by Treasury in February, while he was still active as chief marketing officer. Novotny says Osborn is only licensed to sell municipal bonds and only receives compensation for the commissions off of his own deals, but considering Osborn’s a partner in a firm profiting off of the program, his eagerness to distance himself is telling.

Supporting TARP shouldn’t be unthinkable for a Republican candidate; Congress approved it with significant Republican support in the fall of 2008. Even Tom Coburn, no one’s idea of a fiscally irresponsible conservative, voted for it. But GOP primary voters aren’t terribly enthusiastic these days about candidates defending the difficult choices made by congressional Republicans. 

So why is the NRSC pulling the purse strings in a race where there isn’t even an incumbent, much less a classic insider-outsider divide? Sasse has used his health policy expertise to run hard against Obamacare, and Hoskins speculates, “McConnell was upset that Sasse called for stronger Republican leadership to stop Obamacare.” However, McConnell’s search-and-destroy mission against SCF-endorsed candidates might have more to do with Hoskins than Sasse. Hoskins was the chief of staff for former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint. For years, Senate Kremlinologists noted a litany of cloakroom-and-dagger operations prompted by DeMint and McConnell’s long-simmering feud. Since leaving the Senate, DeMint has used his position as head of the powerful Heritage Foundation in ways that have irked Senate Republicans.

It’s an open question whether the NRSC is making threats that it can’t back up. Aside from Sasse, observers think the SCF-endorsed Chris McDaniel has a good chance of beating Mississippi’s Thad Cochran. And when McConnell crows about the SCF not having “a single nominee anywhere in the country,” he’s setting a low bar. If the SCF wins just one or two Senate races, that may be all it takes for McConnell to wake up and find that, far from being crushed, his Tea Party opposition is emboldened.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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