Is History Repeating Itself in Nebraska?

Just as in the state’s 2012 GOP primary, a little-known challenger is making a late surge.

Republican Senate hopeful banker Sid Dinsdale participates in a debate in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, March 11, 2014. x
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
May 12, 2014, 3:34 p.m.

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.

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