A tea-party favorite will take on a Democratic trial lawyer for an open Senate seat in Nebraska while two women will make history in West Virginia facing off for the seat held since 1985 by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a liberal lion of the Democratic Party.
Primary elections in the two states Tuesday also put former Maryland state legislator Alex Mooney — the top money-raiser in a crowded Republican field — in the driver's seat to replace GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District.
Capito easily won the Republican slot in the race for Rockefeller's Senate seat and will go head-to-head with Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who won the Democratic primary. West Virginia voters have never had two women running against each other in a statewide race.
In Nebraska, Midland University President Ben Sasse — a favorite of conservative outside groups — won the Republican Senate primary Tuesday night, paving his way to the Senate and giving his allies a much-sought victory. Sasse will take on the Democratic nominee, attorney David Domina, in a November race that's expected to stay in the Republican column. GOP Sen. Mike Johanns is retiring at the end of this Congress.
Sasse, the front-runner going into Tuesday night, earned 45 percent of the GOP vote with 12 percent of precincts reporting when the Associated Press called the race, less than an hour after the polls closed. Sasse fended off a last-minute surge from bank president Sid Dinsdale, who was taking 25 percent as the race was called. Former Nebraska state Treasurer Shane Osborn, the onetime favorite, took 23 percent.
Once considered a dark-horse candidate among the GOP's choices to replace Johanns, Sasse picked up endorsements from more than a dozen outside groups including the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Madison Project. In a rare move, another group, FreedomWorks, rescinded its endorsement of Osborn and instead gave it to Sasse, citing Osborn's perceived closeness with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In a TV interview Tuesday, Sasse said he would vote for McConnell to lead the party in the Senate.
In the Mountain State, Mooney had 33 percent of the vote with 59 percent of precincts reporting when AP called the race. Former George W. Bush administration official Charlotte Lane and pharmacist Ken Reed trailed with 20 percent of the vote, and four other Republicans divided the remainder.
Mooney will face attorney Nick Casey, who won the Democratic nomination to replace Capito. The district favors Republicans (Mitt Romney won there by a 22-point margin in 2012), though Democrats hope the local party brand remains strong enough to challenge for the seat.
There was no clear favorite in the seven-candidate Republican primary race, but Mooney outspent his opponents and attracted outside spending from groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and Citizens United. He spent more than $400,000 on the primary race, and he benefited from another $161,000 in outside spending supporting him, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This was the first House primary for a candidate endorsed by Mooney's highest-profile backer, the Senate Conservatives Fund. The antiestablishment group, which sounded unhappy notes about Capito's Senate run but couldn't mount an intra-party challenge against her, spent over $60,000 on radio ads backing Mooney and announced in a victory statement Tuesday night that it had raised $30,000 for him during the primary.
Opponents sought to counter Mooney's spending advantage by painting him as a carpetbagger on the hunt for a congressional seat. He considered running for Maryland's 6th District in 2012 but decided against it — and moved to friendlier, more conservative pastures in West Virginia. Mooney noted that many residents of West Virginia's eastern panhandle have moved there from Maryland.
While Mooney will be favored against Casey, the competitive and costly Republican primary means the Democrat will start the general election with more money to spend. Before coasting through his primary, Casey reported having more than $626,000 cash on hand, compared with Mooney's $213,000.