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Nebraska tea party activists at odds over Sasse, Osborn

By   /   April 10, 2014  /   No Comments

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — While several national tea party-affiliated groups have lined up behind Ben Sasse in Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race, not everyone of a conservative slant agrees with the sentiment.

Fifty-two conservative, tea party and liberty leaders and activists from Nebraska wrote an open letter to FreedomWorks and other like-minded national groups saying they don’t speak for them.

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INFIGHTING: While several national Tea Party groups have endorsed Ben Sasse in Nebraska’s Senate race, some local Tea Party activists say they don’t support Sasse. FreedomWorks dismissed them as Osborn supporters.

“We are disappointed with the way D.C. organizations are telling Nebraskans what the Tea Party in Nebraska thinks,” the letter said. “If anyone knows, it is us, the hard-working, non-paid members of liberty groups across Nebraska.”

They were particularly irritated when FreedomWorks recently pulled its endorsement of former State Treasurer Shane Osborn and flipped it to Midland University President Sasse and said their turnaround was based on input from their Nebraska activists.

“We are their members and we don’t back Sasse,” said Patrick Bonnett, chairman of the Conservative Coalition of Nebraska. “Don’t come in here and speak for us.”

He’s been an organizer for FreedomWorks in Nebraska, and said he hasn’t found a single tea partier who urged the national organization to switch its endorsement. Bonnett helped write and gather signatures for the letter out of frustration over FreedomWorks’ endorsement switch and the “barrage of radio, TV and direct mail ads” from national groups that have “swept Nebraska like a plague of locusts.”

“We wanted to show that Nebraskans don’t like Washington, D.C., PACs coming in and speaking for us,” he said in an interview. “You’ve gotta go through us.”

FreedomWorks spokeswoman Jackie Bodnar dismissed the letter as orchestrated by the Osborn campaign, which touted it in an email fundraising appeal Thursday.

“It’s interesting — the Shane Osborn camp didn’t think an endorsement from FreedomWorks was a plague of locusts when he traveled around the state bragging about it every day,” she told Nebraska Watchdog.

The Sasse campaign responded to the letter by questioning how representative of the tea party a letter from 52 people is. The campaign demonstrated that by rounding up within hours 120 signatures of conservatives, Christian and “grassroots activists” — including a couple of FreedomWorks activists — that support Sasse.

While hesitant to put a number on how many people the letter represents, Bonnett said, “Most tea partiers in Nebraska are behind us on this letter.”

“That list is a ‘who’s who’ of conservative activists in Nebraska,” he said.

One prominent tea party activist whose name was not on the letter is Laura Ebke, chairwoman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. She said she was asked about it a few days ago, but didn’t want to take sides in the race.

She recognized some of the names on the letter and said some of are “definitely in the Osborn camp.” Asked whether she felt the letter signers were representative of tea partiers in Nebraska, she said “Maybe.”

The letter stated that while the 52 signers’ philosophies slightly differ, they all agree Sasse is not their choice.

 (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

AT ODDS: Tea Party activists are at odds over whether to support Ben Sasse (left) or Shane Osborn (right).

“We were not consulted, polled, or contacted by these Washington, D.C., groups such as FreedomWorks has claimed,” they wrote. “We find the endorsement of Ben Sasse and the claim of widespread support by Tea Party activists to be presupposed and false and we do not support him.”

Sasse may be a “nice guy with good ideas,” Bonnett said, but he’s suspicious of his past statements and writings on health care, and believes he’s changed his position somewhat.

“It’s not that he’s a bad guy, we’re just looking for something different from our next senator,” he said.

Bonnett talked up Osborn’s accomplishments, such as cutting the state treasurer’s office budget, posting state contracts on a website and returning more unclaimed property to Nebraskans.

He said some of the people who signed the letter are undecided or support the other two Republican candidates, Omaha attorney Bart McLeay and Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale.

The letter was emailed to about 20,000 people and posted on nebraskaconservatives.com, Bonnett said.

“We feel that people here on the ground need to tell Washington, D.C., how things are, not the Washington people telling us,” Bonnett said. “That’s the whole tea party movement.”

Scott Petersen, who was chairman of the Douglas County Republican Party while Bonnett was executive director for six months, is affiliated with FreedomWorks and doesn’t think the letter represents many Nebraska tea partiers.

“It’s a group that’s supportive of Shane Osborn and they’re kind of trying to support Shane I think,” he said. “They say not all tea party people agree with FreedomWorks, and I’m sure they don’t. Shane Osborn’s a great guy and Ben Sasse is a great guy, and you know those are very coveted endorsements. So if I was Shane Osborn, I’d find any way I could to neutralize those endorsements.”

He said he knows “a lot of folks” affiliated with FreedomWorks that supported the switch to Sasse.

“I know a lot of people are uncomfortable because Shane Osborn has Mitch McConnell’s support and Mitch McConnell is associated with that group that is actively fighting against Tea Party groups,” he said, referring to Main Street Partnership, a moderate Republican PAC that’s working to protect incumbent Republicans from primary challengers.

The FreedomWorks spokeswoman said while the group appreciates the input from the 52 people who wrote the letter, she said FreedomWorks is a service center for grassroots activists that empowers local volunteers at their request, not the other way around.

“There are thousands of conservatives, libertarians and tea party leaders who believe that Ben Sasse is the strongest choice in the Nebraska Senate primary,” Bodnar said. “They have asked for our help, and we plan to continue empowering those volunteers on the ground with resources and materials as best we can.”

The winner of the May 13 primary takes on Democrat Dave Domina in November.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org.

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Deena Winter has been a journalist for over 20 years, writing stories for the Northwood Gleaner, Bismarck Tribune, Associated Press, Denver Post and Lincoln Journal Star before joining Watchdog.