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The New York Times' Bizarre Spin on the Nebraska Senate Race

12:24 PM, May 12, 2014 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The New York Times is up with a story today, "Tea Party Activists See Own Groups Among Washington Adversaries," about the supposed tension between national Tea Party groups and local Tea Party activists. The lede of the piece involves an anecdote -- and I use that term loosely, as it seems to bear little relationship to reality -- about the Nebraska Senate race:

The still-emerging Tea Party movement is not merely waging war against the Republican establishment this year. Some of its more heated disputes are coming from within.  

That struggle is playing out vividly in Nebraska, which will hold a Republican Senate primary on Tuesday between former State Treasurer Shane Osborn and Ben Sasse, the president of Midland University.  Mr. Osborn, who has the support of activists in the state, secured a major endorsement last November from FreedomWorks, the organization that helped vault the Tea Party to prominence.

Mr. Osborn, the group said, stood “with the grass-roots uprising before it was cool.” But in March, FreedomWorks rescinded its support of Osborn and backed Sasse.  

Ever since, Nebraska’s Tea Party members have been battling national Tea Party donor groups.  “We are not million dollar Washington, D.C., special interest groups with strong ties to Capitol Hill.

We are simply Nebraskans who are fed up,” a group of 52 activists wrote in an open letter protesting FreedomWorks’ about-face, adding, “We were not consulted, polled, or contacted by these Washington, D.C., groups.” 

Having covered this race extensively, this line ("Mr. Osborn, who has the support of activists in the state...") seems at best to be an overstatement by the Times, assuming it is referring to Tea Party activists. (I would also note that the Osborn campaign has had trouble when it comes to overstating the extent of their endorsements.) There were a number of major Tea Party endorsements in the race that were in play besides FreedomWorks, many of which both Sasse and Osborn vied for. And yes, a tally of these endorsements would suggest that Sasse was the favorite of the Tea Party organizations, and Sasse has also been endorsed by national Tea Party leaders such as Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. In contrast, Osborn was being supported by a number of important figures closely alligned with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky senator vowed in March that he would "crush" Tea Party candidates, specifically candidates such as Sasse who were endorsed by Tea Party group Senate Conservatives Fund. And he made this announcement in the pages of the New York Times no less. Former McConnell chief of staff turned insurance lobbyist Billy Piper was helping raise money for Osborn, and in recent weeks a slew of dishonest, negative ads against Sasse were paid for by a PAC started by McConnell's former campaign manager. While it's possible for multiple candidates in a Republican primary to legitimately claim Tea Party support, that claim is a lot harder to make coming from a guy who's being backed by the powerful Republican establishment leader who has publicly vowed to crush Tea Party candidates. 

Second, the claim that there's serious friction between national groups and local activists over Sasse just doesn't match the facts in Nebraska. The letter referred to in the lede was released over a month ago—I encourage you tolook at it yourself—and made little noise locally or nationally when it was released. While I don't doubt the sincerity of those who signed it in support of Osborn or that they can legitimately claim to be Tea Party voters and activists, there's no evidence that these 50 signatures are in anyway broadly indicative of a lack of comity between the grassroots and national Tea Party groups. Since the letter was published, polls show Osborn has slipped to third in the Nebraska GOP primary. The candidate in second place, Sid Dinsdale, is on record as saying he would deemphasize social issues such as abortion and is no one's definition of Tea Party. Further, Sasse has significantly outraised Osborn and Dinsdale in campaign donations from Nebraskans. That's a pretty good indicator of the strength of his grassroots support. 

The bottom line: Nebraska's Senate primary is tomorrow. Sasse is the frontrunner according to all the polls, and the available evidence points to him having solid Tea Party support both locally and among national organizations. There may be other reasons that local Tea Party activists have issues with national Tea Party organizations, but it's bizarre to suggest that endorsing Ben Sasse is one of them. The Times is either being spun or it's out of its depth covering GOP politics, or both.  

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