TIME 2014 Election

Tea Party Divided In Nebraska Republican Senate Race

Ben Sasse
Ben Sasse, Republican congressional candidate from Nebraska Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

How the Cornhusker State primary explains the Republican Party's challenge in 2014

Elections are like any other job hunt: the key to getting selected is often to have the right people vouch for you. Intelligence and experience are wonderful attributes in a campaign. But if your opponent boasts connections to powerful people with fat wallets, all the town halls and policy papers in the world may not win you a ticket to Washington.

For Republican primaries candidates, some of the most coveted recommendations come from the cadre of national conservative groups whose money and reputation can lift an unknown challenger. Of all the conservative upstarts running in 2014, Ben Sasse of Nebraska has been among the best at winning their support.

Sasse, the 42-year-old president of Nebraska’s Midland University, has piled up endorsements from groups like Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, as well as from boldface names like Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee and House GOP star Paul Ryan. The endorsements have boosted Sasse in a competitive Republican primary to succeed retiring Republican Senator Mike Johanns.

Sasse needed it. His top competitor in the May 13 primary, former state treasurer and Navy aviator Shane Osborn, has the tacit support of key party power brokers, include Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. When FreedomWorks—the biggest national conservative group to endorse Osborn—abruptly threw its support to Sasse in late March, the decision seemed to cement Sasse’s stature as the Tea Party choice.

But things are never so simple in the great Gordian knot of Republican politics.

On April 8, a coalition of 52 Nebraska conservatives released a letter stating that Sasse wasn’t their guy. Sasse is “NOT the choice of conservative, libertarian, and tea party movement activists and group leaders in Nebraska,” they wrote. “We are disappointed with the way DC organizations are telling Nebraskans what the Tea Party in Nebraska thinks.”

In fact, the collection of national endorsements may count as a strike against Sasse back home, explains Faron Hines, a pest management technician from Thayer, Neb., and a member of the York County Tea Party. “All of his endorsements are from out of state. Those big national groups don’t represent the people of Nebraska,” says Hines, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate but says he’s learning toward Osborn. “That isn’t the Nebraska way, and that does rile a few people. Who is he going to represent when he gets to Washington?”

Sasse’s supporters dismiss the letter as an effort to stanch the momentum of a surging candidate. “It’s obviously from Osborn,” says an adviser with one of the national groups backing Sasse. “They needed to do something.”

Osborn’s support is real: one recent poll showed him with a 35% to 24% edge. But Sasse has Tea Party support on the ground as well. (Two days after the missive against Sasse, more than 100 Nebraska conservatives signed a second letter singing his praises.) “Yes, we have support outside the state,” says Tyler Grassmeyer, Sasse’s campaign manager. “But we also have the most support inside the state.”

The race has emerged as a proxy fight for the factions battling to control the GOP. Both leading candidates have relied heavily on out-of-state fundraising. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Sasse has netted 59% of his $1.4 million from outside Nebraska and Osborn garnered 68% of the $939,000 he has raised from groups outside the Cornhusker State. The inverse is true of the race’s other two Republicans, who are lagging behind in the polls.

Once the national groups who egged on the government shutdown backed Sasse, the Republican Establishment ramped up their efforts in the opposite direction. McConnell has declared war on the Senate Conservative Fund, which is backing the Republican leader’s primary opponent. When Sasse asked to sit down with McConnell last fall to ease tensions, the meeting didn’t go too well. And while the Republican senate committee is officially neutral, they are helping Osborn behind the scenes with donors, say sources familiar with those discussions.

This is the flip side of winning powerful friends: you inherit their enemies as well.

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