With the Nebraska Republican Senate primary a week from tomorrow, outside money is flowing into the state to take down the race's frontrunner, Midland University president Ben Sasse. And the provenance of the money attacking Sasse is especially curious--a super PAC with strong ties to senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
In April 2012, two super PACs were formed with the aid of Justin Brasell, who managed McConnell's successful reelection campaign in 2008. One is Bluegrass Votes Super PAC, which “plans to make independent expenditures to support Senator Mitch McConnell’s upcoming re-election campaign [in 2014],” according to Brasell. The other super PAC was the Freedom Pioneers Action Network, which was started to help the ultimately doomed Senate candidacy of former North Dakota representative Rick Berg. (Interestingly, Brasell is currently managing the campaign of Arkansas Senate candidate Tom Cotton.)
Last week, the Freedom Pioneers super PAC spent over $100,000 on online ads and direct mail attacking Sasse -- and many of the negative ads are using quotes that have been criticized by Nebraska newspapers for being taken out of context. Further, that may have just been the beginning. "We expect the Freedom Pioneers super PAC to spend a lot more money attacking us this week," says Sasse campaign advisor Jordan Gehrke.
The motivation behind the ads is suspect for a number of reasons. Sasse, a former Bush administration official, was backed early on by the Senate Conservatives Fund. The Senate Conservatives Fund has ties to former senator and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, who is known to have a long simmering feud with McConnell dating back to their days in the Senate together. Though officially the National Republican Senatorial Committee has remained neutral, most observers agree that McConnell used the national party's clout to lend support to Sasse's chief competitor in the race, former Nebraska state treasurer, Shane Osborn. (For a detailed account of the contretemps in the Nebraska senate primary see "A Big Fight Over Small Differences" from the March 24 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.)
However, the latest round of attacks from the McConnell camp are surprising because the Nebraska GOP primary has become a three-way race. It's been a rough couple of months for Osborn. He made a major misstep by wrongly claiming a memo defending his military record was an official Navy document. He also launched a slew of negative ads against Sasse. The Tea Party group Freedomworks pulled their endorsement of Osborn and endorsed Sasse. As a result, Osborn has been sinking in the polls, and Sid Dinsdale, a wealthy Omaha banker who's self-funding much of his campaign, has been rising. Yesterday, Jeffrey Anderson noted Dinsdale "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."
At this point, attempts by McConnell-affiliated groups to bloody Sasse help Dinsdale more than buoy Osborn. When McConnell's groups were directly backing Osborn, it was at least defensible because few primary voters disagree that both Osborn and Sasse have genuine conservative bona fides. (Whether or not the national GOP should be intervening in an open Senate primary instead of leaving it entirely up to voters is another matter.) Sasse's campaign notes that Dinsdale is likable personally but have expressed concern he would be a very moderate Republican senator--he has said he's open to "setting aside" concerns about conservative social issues such as abortion. Furthermore, in 2011 Dinsdale's Pinnacle Bancorp PAC donated money to Nebraska Democratic senator Ben Nelson’s reelection. This donation was well after Nelson was the 60th vote for Obamacare and was the source of national controversy after Democratic leaders promised the federal government would pick up the tab for Medicaid expansion in Nebraska—the so-called "Cornhusker Kickback."
This on-the-ground reality is at odds with the fact that the Freedom Pioneers super PAC is attacking Sasse from the right. Specifically, the attack ads claim Sasse, a former assistant secretary of Health and Human Services and acknowledged health care policy expert, is insufficiently anti-Obamacare, despite making the repeal of Obamacare the dominant theme of his campaign. Sasse has also been endorsed by Tea Party favorites Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, who have at times rubbed McConnell the wrong way in the Senate. As a potential Senate majority leader next year, McConnell's primary reason for attacking Sasse might be that he wants fewer independent conservatives and more pliable moderates in the Senate.
Even so, it seems extremely questionable if the Senate minority leader is wading into an open Senate primary and wasting resources making factually dubious attacks on a well-qualified conservative candidate who's leading in the polls. Whoever wins Nebraska's GOP primary is a lock in November. Why not spend that money being used to attack Sasse on a GOP candidate that could use the resources to help pick up an additional senate seat? Send the checks to North Carolina, Michigan, Alaska, Louisiana, Colorado, or anywhere there's a genuine opportunity to pick-up a new senate seat. Heck, Brasell could use that money in Arkansas where Tom Cotton, a very worthy GOP candidate, is still trailing slightly in recent polls. If McConnell doesn't like Tea Party intransigence now, alienating conservative voters with unnecessary and heavy-handed intrusions into primary elections seems likely to foment even more intraparty disputes in the future.
In any event, pro-Sasse groups are already playing offense. They're planning to make at least $250,000 ad buys this week ahead of next Tuesday's primary to mute the impact of more attacks from the Freedom Pioneers PAC.
UPDATE: McConnell's campaign has issued statement asserting they are standing on the sidelines in Nebraska and have nothing to do with his former campaign manager's super PAC attacks on Sasse. "As our campaign has previously made clear, Sen. McConnell has not endorsed in Nebraska's Senate race and has absolutely no association with efforts on behalf of any candidates in the race," said McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore.