For Conservatives, Nebraska Race Is High-Risk, High-Reward

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Tuesday brings with it another important primary election, and as the Washington Post reports, conservatives have “gone all in for Republican Ben Sasse in the Nebraska Senate race, a high-stakes gambit that could either blunt or bolster their momentum heading into the heart of the 2014 primary season.”

Despite a business background that raised some eyebrows, and the fact that he has no voting record to confirm his commitment to conservatism, this whip-smart candidate with boyish good looks (take a young Bruce Boxleitner, circa Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and add a sprinkling of Parks and Recreation’s Ben Wyatt) garnered the near-universal support of the conservative movement.

Former treasurer Shane Osborn (whose main sin seems to be that the establishment liked him) was thus pushed aside, leading to a surprise development: The rise of a third candidate — a self-funder named Sid Dinsdale.

As Aaron Blake reports, Sasse allies “have ramped up attacks in recent days against Sid Dinsdale” leading to speculation that Dinsdale “is the wild card heading toward Tuesday’s primary.” (This speculation was aided by the fact that Dinsdale “loaned his campaign $1 million” heading into the final week of the campaign.

Midwesterners tend to not like negative or “dirty” campaigns, so when two front-runners slug it out like Sasse and Osborn did, it can open the door to a third option. This happened in South Dakota’s 2002 GOP primary when Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lieutenant Governor Steve T. Kirby destroyed each other, paving the way for Governor Mike Rounds.

And, of course, something similar (though not perfectly analogous) happened in Nebraska two years ago, when, as Blake notes, “Republicans Jon Bruning and Don Stenberg battered each other with attacks, clearing the way for now-Sen. Deb Fischer (R) to make a late surge.” (Not to say “I told you so,” but back in March, I warned this could happen.)

So the obvious problem for conservatives here is that Sid Dinsdale — probably the most liberal candidate in the race — now has at least a chance to win. This would be a much worse conclusion than had conservatives simply sat this one out, and allowed one of the two more conservative candidates to organically emerge victorious.

There’s also this: When the entire conservative movement coalesces around one candidate, forsaking all others, they are making a big bet on that candidate — essentially writing off the others.

Would diversification have been shrewder?

Now, in the unlikely event that Osborn wins, this one-time ally might instead be a lifelong adversary. And what if Dinsdale wins? A Dinsdale victory would be symbolically devastating to conservatives.

Don’t get me wrong, all signs still point to Sasse winning on Tuesday. And if he does, it’ll be hard to second guess the decision to go all in for him. But the fact is that all the conservative eggs are now in the Sasse basket, meaning that he had better win, or else there will be a lot of folks with egg on their face come this time next week.