Only in Nebraska could primary voters have the surprise factor to reject both the tea party's darling and a Washington favorite in favor of an overlooked candidate running in third place. Now they might do it again.
For most of the campaign, two Republican primary candidates — Midland University president Ben Sasse and former state Treasurer Shane Osborn — gobbled up headlines, the top of the polls, and the attention of more than $3.5 million in outside group spending. But the de-facto two-man race has been shattered by local bank president Sid Dinsdale, whose surge in the last two weeks has made him the talk of the state's primary to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns.
It's a story everyone in Nebraska politics has heard before. Just two years ago, primary voters rejected the negative campaigns of two front-running candidates to boost state legislator Deb Fischer, then an underdog candidate also running in third place, into the U.S. Senate. Once again hit by an influx of outside attacks, voters have a similar choice.
"It's what they call Prairie Populism," said Nebraska Republican consultant Phil Young. "Nebraskans are educated voters, and they don't like outside interests getting involved. They can make up their own minds."
Sasse remains the favorite, but strategists in the Cornhusker State say Dinsdale has a chance to pull the upset thanks in part to staying off the airwaves and out of the fray until the race's final weeks — a decision that kept him out of the crosshairs of his opponents. Sasse's campaign has targeted him more aggressively of late, redirecting fire that it (and Sasse's outside allies) had previously aimed at Osborn. Most of the advertising in play this past week has been either for or against Dinsdale.
In a state with notoriously fickle voting habits, Dinsdale is betting his late-breaking, local campaign will appeal to a plurality.
"Nebraskans know the Dinsdales from the community bank franchises and their agribusinesses," said Dinsdale campaign strategist Sam Fischer (who is also a nephew of the state's junior U.S. senator). He pointed to Pinnacle Bank locations across the state as being known for their community involvement, from banking to supporting local Little Leagues.
Dinsdale's campaign is also putting his father's household name to use, featuring Roy Dinsdale in some of the campaign ads.
Young said that kind of Main Street messaging is what resonates with Nebraskans, not outside ads.
"It's a small enough state, you can win a campaign with grassroots here," Young said. "There's a lot of other means of messaging that carry weight."
Nebraska campaign consultant Chris Peterson, who's unaffiliated in the race, pointed to Dinsdale's in-state fundraising as another indication that he was playing by Nebraska's rule book.
Dinsdale raised nearly $1 million from within the state before chipping in with a personal loan of the same amount. He spent the first major chunk of his campaign traveling the state long before going on air.
Sasse's and Osborn's campaigns are both quick to poke holes in the theory that Dinsdale could replicate Fischer's victory, primarily because they allege his background and agenda are too moderate. It's an argument that outside groups have echoed in ferocious, last-minute attacks on TV.
"Deb Fischer was a 3rd [Congressional] District rancher, and she's a conservative," said Sasse adviser Jordan Gehrke. "Sid is a moderate banker from Omaha."
Gehrke was also skeptical of the idea that the race had reached the levels of negativity that turned off voters in 2012. The front-runners "just absolutely bludgeoned each other in 2012; their negatives were both upside down by Election Day," Gehrke said. "Voters didn't like either one of those guys. That hasn't happened here."
Young, who worked on the Fischer campaign in 2012, said one hitch to the Dinsdale surge may be early voters, who have had ballots for nearly 35 days. Those voters would be more likely to have cast ballots for Osborn, who was in a stronger position just a few weeks ago, he said. That's just one of many issues scrambling the primary in its last days.