History could repeat itself in Nebraska on Tuesday as voters choose a Republican Senate nominee among three legitimate contenders.
In 2012, now-Sen. Deb Fischer pulled off an unlikely, come-from-behind victory in a GOP primary she was trailing heading into the final week. Fischer had less money and was less well-known, but she rose to the top after two other candidates spent the campaign aggressively bashing each other.
Two years later, Sid Dinsdale, the president of Pinnacle Bank, has run third in the Senate primary. But as outside groups supporting Midland University president Ben Sasse and former state Treasurer Shane Osborn have relentlessly attacked their leading opposition, Dinsdale saw a spike in his poll numbers.
“Dinsdale spent enough money ... that with the negatives that the other two have given each other, he’s been able to rise up and become a very serious factor,” said Chris Peterson, an unaligned Nebraska Republican consultant. Outside groups backing Sasse have taken notice: The independent expenditure arms of the Club for Growth, the Madison Project, and the 60 Plus Association all launched ads attacking Dinsdale in the final week of the race.
That, one Nebraska Republican strategist said, could possibly “backfire” and make Nebraska voters want to “rally around Dinsdale.” Dinsdale pushed back in an ad of his own , attacking the "dark money” from outside groups trying to tell Nebraska voters what to do.
“People love an underdog, and Nebraska’s no different,” that strategist said. Dinsdale’s surge could be coming too late to net him a win in tomorrow’s primary, but, the strategist added, "more and more folks are talking about him.”
Not everyone is so convinced. Aaron Trost, who managed Fischer’s campaign, said that while the poll numbers might be moving in a similar way, there were some major differences between this year’s primary and 2012.
“Sen. Fischer was really a perfect fit for a Nebraska Republican primary,” he said, pointing to the fact that she was a rancher, the only candidate from a rural part of the state, and a "very fresh face,” all of which made her a “very marketable candidate” with "natural differentiation points from her opponents." Dinsdale, he said, is a very different candidate.
“He’s a banker from Omaha, Deb’s a rancher from Valentine,” echoed a Republican operative who has worked on past Nebraska campaigns. "The race dynamics, I guess, are a little similar. ... I’d say that’s probably where the similarities end,” the operative added.
Dinsdale’s opponents were different too, said Trost. Sasse, the current favorite, ran "a very strong campaign.” Bruning, the frontrunner in 2012, had run "a pretty weak campaign.”
Trost predicted Sasse would win. "I just don’t see Dinsdale being able to close it out,” he said.
The most recent poll on the race came from Sasse's campaign and found Sasse leading with 34 percent, followed by Dinsdale with 23 percent. Osborn, who began the race as the frontrunner, was third with 20 percent. In a race with such changing dynamics, though, Osborn cannot be counted out, cautioned Peterson.
"He started as the frontrunner, and sometimes Nebraska voters go back to where they originally felt more comfortable," Peterson said.
Osborn campaign adviser Brad Todd called it a "wide open three-way race" and said they would work to get their supporters to the polls on Tuesdays.
"Shane’s supporters have been pretty resilient in the face of a lot of negative ads by the Sasse team," Todd said.
The race is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call .