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Nebraska’s Dark-Horse Candidate and the Cornhusker Kickback

10:31 AM, May 4, 2014 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary has long looked to be shaping up as a battle between Midland University president Ben Sasse and former state treasurer Shane Osborn.  Throughout the campaign, Sasse has emphasized his determination to repeal Obamacare and fight the “Obamacare worldview,” while Osborn has emphasized his (controversial) military service and the fact that he’s not Sasse.  But as the Cornhusker State primary enters its stretch run (the primary is on May 13), a dark-horse candidate is making a move on the inside rail.

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Sid Dinsdale, a highly successful banker who has avoided the attacks by Osborn that have simultaneously weakened both frontrunners (Sasse because he’s been the one attacked, Osborn because Nebraskans don’t like negative campaigns), has pulled within 3 points of Osborn and 9 points of Sasse in recent polling — after trailing each by at least 16 points in polling taken three months ago.  Dinsdale also recently picked up the endorsement of the Omaha World-Herald, which wrote, “Sensibly, [Dinsdale] would talk with those on the other side of the partisan aisle, and he has the tools to be persuasive in such conversations.”

Such willingness to reach across the aisle, however, may prove to be Dinsdale’s undoing.  If there was any Senate Democrat whom conservatives were determined to defeat in the wake of Obamacare’s passage, it was Ben Nelson, the Nebraska senator who (in contrast to the other Democratic senators, all of whom caved earlier) really did hold the 60th and final vote needed to secure the overhaul’s Senate passage.  Nelson was probably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate — perhaps by a wide margin — and the fate of Obamacare in that chamber ultimately rested in his hands. 

Five days before Christmas of 2009, the Washington Post wrote, “Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) secured the pivotal 60th vote after acceding to the demands of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).”  Two days later, the New York Post wrote, “In exchange for Nelson’s vote on the $871 billion [now $1.8 trillion] health bill — the key 60th vote needed to overcome unanimous Republican opposition — Democratic leaders guaranteed the federal government would pay the full price of expanded Medicaid coverage in Nebraska.” 

This, of course, was the notorious Cornhusker Kickback, secured for Nelson by Harry Reid.  Two days later, Nelson voted for Obamacare as the Democratic-controlled Senate passed it by a tally of 60 to 39, without a single Republican vote — and without a vote to spare — on the morning of Christmas Eve.

“Change is never easy, but change is what’s necessary in America,” Nelson said shortly after reaching his deal with Reid.

The Cornhusker Kickback became a source of national outrage.  But while millions of Americans were appalled by the deal that Nelson and Reid had struck and the vote that Nelson had cast, that list does not seem to have included Sid Dinsdale.  In 2011 — well after Nelson had cast that fateful vote — Dinsdale’s Pinnacle Bancorp PAC donated money to Nelson’s senatorial campaign.

Nelson — whose Obamacare vote cost him the support of both National Right to Life and Nebraska Right to Life (in 2011, the former wrote, “No pro-lifer should even consider supporting Ben Nelson for re-election”) — would ultimately decide not to run again and is now the chief executive of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.  Dinsdale’s fate remains to be determined.

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