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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Las Vegas Review-Journal Backs Trump
46 minutes ago

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, owned by casino magnate and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, became the first major city newspaper to endorse Donald Trump over the weekend.“Mr. Trump represents neither the danger his critics claim nor the magic elixir many of his supporters crave,” the editorial read, acknowledging concerns about Trump’s temperament. “But neither candidate will ever be called to the dais to accept an award for moral probity and character,” the paper said. “And we are already distressingly familiar with the Clinton way, which involves turning public service into an orgy of influence peddling and entitlement designed to line their own pockets — precisely what a disgruntled electorate now rises up to protest.”

Clinton Leads by 12 in ABC Tracking Poll
47 minutes ago

Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by 12 percentage points among likely voters, 50 to 38 percent, in a new ABC News tracking poll, "her highest support and his lowest to date in ABC News and ABC News/Washington Post polls. Gary Johnson has 5 percent support, Jill Stein 2 percent. Clinton led by only four points in the last ABC/Post poll on Oct. 13.

Obama to Endorse 150 Down-Ballot Democrats
47 minutes ago

President Obama "will make a late splash into races for state senate and assembly over the next week, endorsing roughly 150 candidates across 20 states. He’ll also back a candidate for the North Carolina Supreme Court. The endorsements — which will come along with a variety of robocalls, social media posts, mailers, photos of Obama with the candidates taken as he’s been traveling to campaign in recent weeks, and even a few radio ads — are Obama’s biggest investment in state races ever by far."

Clinton Reaching Out to GOP Senators
47 minutes ago

If you need a marker for how confident Hillary Clinton is at this point of the race, here's one: CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports "she's been talking to Republican senators, old allies and new, saying that she is willing to work with them and govern."

Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
2 days ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.