Updated 2:52 p.m. Monday
By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — About $8.5 million has been spent on Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race so far, with $3 million of that being spent by outside groups hoping to influence Nebraskans’ decisions in Tuesday’s primary election.
The candidate who has benefited most from spending by outsiders is Ben Sasse, president of Midland University and a newcomer to politics. According to analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, $1.4 million has been spent by outside groups in support of Sasse, and nearly $300,000 has been spent in opposition.
That overshadows the $267,000 spent by outsiders in support of former State Treasurer Shane Osborn. Nearly $489,000 has been spent opposing Osborn’s election, according to the analysis.
As Sasse and Osborn’s supporters have duked it out on the airwaves, Pinnacle Bancorp President Sid Dinsdale has surged in the polls, and consequently gotten his share of attention from outside groups, too, with nearly $577,000 spent opposing him.
U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, whose seat four Republicans are vying for in Tuesday’s primary, bemoaned all the outside spending in the race in response to a Nebraska Watchdog question Thursday.
Johanns said he doesn’t draw a distinction between campaigns and outside groups that “do the dirty work” for them — candidates who get a group’s endorsement and then benefit from the negative ads that group buys.
“It’s all part and parcel of the same campaign,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’ve sought the endorsement.”
Of the 17 outside groups spending money on the race in Nebraska, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, most are tea party groups such as FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
The national press has repeatedly portrayed the race as a bellwether for the tea party’s strength or weakness, about five years after the grassroots movement began protesting the stimulus program, bank bailouts and health care reform. As tea party groups look to duplicate their success in toppling incumbents in 2010 and 2012, Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are trying to beat back tea party groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund. The SCF hopes to score a win in Nebraska and has spent the most among outside groups in Nebraska so far, at over $711,000.
A super PAC with ties to McConnell has responded by spending over $200,000 against Sasse, trying to portray him as being soft on Obamacare even though he has made repealing the law the centerpiece of his campaign.
The national media has jumped on the story line that Nebraska’s Senate race could be a repeat of U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer’s darkhorse come-from-behind, shoot-the-middle 2012 win after the two frontrunners had bloodied and beaten each other. After Nebraska Watchdog pointed out the possible parallel nearly a month ago, national journalists have followed suit (see Roll Call, Politico, Talking Points Memo and the Washington Post for a sampling of pack journalism at its finest).
But the guy who managed Fischer’s campaign isn’t predicting a Fischer-style repeat Tuesday. Aaron Trost said Fischer was a rancher from the Third Congressional District — whose votes are pivotal in Nebraska primaries — while Dinsdale is an Omaha banker. His family founded the third wealthiest bank in Nebraska and he has put up $1 million to help fund his campaign and fight back against outside groups.
The Kansas City political consultant — who has done consulting work for the Senate Conservatives Fund in the past — thinks the polling “makes sense” and predicts Sasse will win the race by double digits, Dinsdale will finish second and Osborn third.
“I think Ben Sasse’s campaign has done a really good job of marketing himself as the true conservative in the race,” Trost said in an interview. “Shane Osborn and Sid Dinsdale have hurt each other more than anything else. They’re eating into the same pool of voters.”
In Nebraska primaries, there’s a huge pocket of very conservative voters — perhaps 40 to 45 percent of the electorate — and Sasse has secured a “huge chunk” of those voters, Trost said. Endorsements by people like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and former Alaska Gov. Sara Palin mean a lot to those voters, he said.
“Those voters are not peeling off him,” Trost said, addind that the pool of less conservative Republicans is being divided up by Osborn and Dinsdale.
By contrast, in the 2012 Senate race, Fischer differentiated herself because she was the only candidate from rural Nebraska, she was a rancher and she was a woman running against people perceived as career politicians, he said.
The only similarities he sees between the two races is that Dinsdale isn’t a career politician either, “but that’s probably about it.”
Omaha political consultant Phil Young – who has consulted for Senate candidate Bart McLeay – said he doesn’t think Nebraskans are as affected by TV ads because “we have a streak of prairie populism” and a lot of people meet candidates and “decisions made more organically.”
Fischer was surging at the end of the campaign, leaving no time for her opponents to beat her up with negative ads. Dinsdale began surging a couple of weeks ago and has been subjected to negative ads.
“Dinsdale gained ground earlier than Fischer did, which gave outside groups more time to run negative ads against him and put a question mark about him in voters’ minds,” Young said. “That might’ve put the brakes on some of that momentum.”
The winner of the Republican primary will take on Democrat David Domina in the November general election.
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