Outside money adding up in Nebraska Senate primary

Nebraska's Republican Senate primary is among the top races in the country where outside political groups are spending money. (Photo courtesy Flickr/Tracy O)
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May 12, 2014 - 6:30am

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 opened the flood gates for campaign spending, and the money is flowing into Nebraska once again. NET News looks at where outside money is coming from in the state’s U.S. Senate Republican primary.


Outside groups spent nearly $3 million on the Republican Senate primary in Nebraska by May 9. That was about a third of all spending in the race by the top candidates who include former state treasurer Shane Osborn, attorney Bart McLeay, Midland University president Ben Sasse, and Pinnacle Bank chairman Sid Dinsdale.

Outside spending has made the Nebraska race one worth watching says Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks political spending and advocates for transparency in campaign finance.

“You’ve seen more money spent than in 2012 which was kind of a big year for outside spending in the state as well,” Novak said. “There’s only about ten other states that are ahead of it in terms of outside spending for the primaries.”

Outside political groups account for about a third of all spending in the Republican Senate primary race.  (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News)


Ten big spenders in Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary (as of 5/9):

Senate Conservatives Fund (PAC) - $711,126

Club for Growth Action Fund (SuperPAC) - $480,128

Legacy Foundation Action Fund (501c) - $349,168

60 Plus Association (501c) - $342,044

Freedom Pioneers Action Network (SuperPAC) - $310,578

Special Operations for America (SuperPAC) - $163,260

Citizens United (PAC) - $144,300

America, Inc. (501c) - $150,000

Freedomworks for America (SuperPAC) - $78,862

Ensuring a Conservative Nebraska (SuperPAC) - $70,900

Source: Center for Responsive Politics; Federal Election Commission

The spending is tracked by the Federal Election Commission, and compiled by groups including the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation.

More than a dozen groups have spent money on the race. They include smaller SuperPACs like the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund or the Madison Action Fund. Then there are heavier hitters like the Club for Growth Action Fund, a conservative SuperPAC.

Club for Growth Action Fund has spent about $3 million nationwide this cycle, including $256,908 on television ads against candidates Sid Dinsdale (video) and another $221,669 on television ads against Shane Osborn (video).

But so far, Novak says the top outside spender in the primary is the Senate Conservatives Fund which has put in more than $700,000 to pay for everything from television ads to robocalls in support of Ben Sasse.

“Senate Conservatives Fund is a big group,” Novak said. “It was started by former Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. And it has been responsible for helping out some of the more libertarian slash tea party candidates around the nation."

Novak says that puts the Senate Conservatives Fund at odds with national establishment leaders like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“McConnell is sort of at war with the Senate Conservatives Fund,” Novak said. “You’ll see McConnell unleashing forces in certain states where he sees the Senate Conservatives Fund active.”

And that’s happening in Nebraska, too. A social welfare group called the Freedom Pioneers Action Network has spent $310,728 for advertising supporting Shane Osborn and for an online ad criticizing Ben Sasse (video).

John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says the back-and-forth spending shows the competition for control within the Republican Party.

“It does seem as though the tea party money has been going toward Ben Sasse and the more establishment money has been going toward Shane Osborn,” Hibbing said.

It’s a similar setup to what played out in the 2012 Republican primary. Two front runners were battling it out with support from tea party and establishment groups. Deb Fischer was not considered a contender. But Hibbing says Fischer made a late surge thanks to well-timed ads put up by the Ending Spending Action Fund, a PAC created by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts.

“If the conventional wisdom is to be believed, she kind of swept in late with a lot of money, negative money, that ran late that was able to allow her to come from way back in the pack and receive the nomination,” Hibbing said.

Fischer ultimately won the open Senate seat.

Since the Citizens United case, fundraising and spending are virtually unlimited for PACs and SuperPACs although they do have to disclose their donors.

That’s different from social welfare organizations called 501(c) groups. Hibbing says a 501(c) has the same freedom to spend without the disclosure requirements.

“And it’s very difficult to find out exactly who is behind those efforts,” Hibbing said. “That’s played out in some of the campaigns we’re seeing in Nebraska with some people running negative ads of their own, others having negative ads run against their opponent, but funded by somebody else and then they can say, ‘No I didn’t do that.’”

Hibbing says outside spending in a political race is not a great predictor of who will win. For now the big money is directed at frontrunners Ben Sasse and Shane Osborn, but Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics says Sid Dinsdale isn’t considered far behind.

“That could benefit Dinsdale, who has the most in terms of percentage of contributions from in-state,” Novak said. Although about half of the nearly $2 million raised for Dinsdale’s campaign came from his own pocket.

John Hibbing says the reason this primary is worth the money for Republicans in or outside of Nebraska is that the Republican nominee is automatically in a strong position for the general election.

“The Republican nominee increasingly is being very difficult to beat in statewide races whether it’s governor or United States Senate,” Hibbing said. “So that’s why so much money is being focused on the Republican nomination because a lot of people view it as really a pretty big step toward being the next office holder.”

It’s a safe bet that whatever the results Tuesday, more money will be on the way. In 2012, more than half the outside money spent on the Senate race was spent after the primary.

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