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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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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. 

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