May 14 (Bloomberg) -- The Tea Party scored a victory in Nebraska’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, a win that groups tied to the limited-government movement are banking will boost momentum heading into the heart of the 2014 nomination calendar.
Ben Sasse, last night’s winner, was backed by such Tea Party leaders as U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. National groups aligned with the movement also endorsed him in the race to fill the seat of retiring Senator Mike Johanns, a Republican.
Nebraska’s primary, as well as one held yesterday in West Virginia, will be followed by others on May 20 and June 3 that will draw more national attention and carry greater consequence.
Those contests in Kentucky, Idaho, Georgia and Mississippi will reveal how much of a threat Tea Party candidates pose to traditional Republicans trying to win control of the U.S. Senate in November’s election.
The party’s national leaders are seeking to avoid the selection of untested, Tea Party-aligned candidates who could hurt their chances to win the chamber, as happened in the 2010 and 2012 elections. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to oust the Democratic majority in the Senate.
In 2012, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a six-term Republican, lost in a primary to a Tea Party-backed candidate, who was then defeated in the general election by Democrat Joe Donnelly. Two years earlier, then-U.S. Representative Mike Castle of Delaware was beaten in a Republican Senate primary by Christine O’Donnell, a Tea Party favorite who during the general election campaign was forced to deny she was a witch. She lost to a Democrat.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington rates Nebraska as “solid Republican” in this year’s election, so Sasse is likely to prevail in November. Lawyer Dave Domina, 63, won the Democratic primary for the seat in a state where President Barack Obama took just 38 percent of the 2012 vote.
Sasse, 42, a former assistant secretary of health and human services in George W. Bush’s administration who now serves as president of Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, is younger than all 45 current Senate Republicans. He represented one of the best opportunities for the Tea Party to claim a win in a contested Senate primary this year.
Republican incumbents have had plenty of intraparty challengers this year, although most of the Tea Party-aligned candidates in those races have failed to spark the kind of electoral excitement their predecessors did in 2010 and 2012.
Tea Party Allies
Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, a group based in the Atlanta area, pointed to other senators tied to the movement such as Cruz and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky as she celebrated Sasse’s win.
“They’ve got reinforcements coming in January,” she said in a statement. “This is a win not just for Ben Sasse, but for fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets.”
With 87 percent of precincts reporting, Sasse had almost 50 percent of the vote in the five-candidate field, according to an Associated Press tabulation early today. He was followed by banking executive Sid Dinsdale, 61, at 22 percent and former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, 39, at 21 percent. Two others were splitting the remainder.
In West Virginia’s race for an open Senate seat, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant won the Democratic nomination and U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito won on the Republican side, ensuring the state will have its first ever female senator.
The Cook report rates the Senate race there as “lean Republican,” meaning it expects Capito to have the advantage in November. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, isn’t seeking re-election.
Besides Cruz and Palin, Sasse was endorsed by three of the top Washington-based groups aligned with the Tea Party: the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund. He was also backed by the Nebraska Farm Bureau, a coveted endorsement in a state with a large agriculture presence.
Tea Party groups were eager to highlight their role in Sasse’s victory.
“Ben clearly articulated a conservative vision to Nebraska voters who rewarded him with their votes,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement. “Club members strongly responded to our appeal for support for Sasse and we’re confident that he’ll be a champion of economic freedom when he is elected to the Senate in November.”
Club members contributed $363,018 directly to Sasse’s campaign through the group’s political action committee, Chocola said, adding that its super-political action committee, Club for Growth Action, spent almost $500,000 in support of his candidacy. Super-PACs can raise and spend unlimited sums on election activity.
“Ben Sasse’s upset victory is a testament to the power of an empowered and relentless grassroots community,” Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, said in a statement. “The GOP political establishment can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on attack ads, but they can’t buy authentic grassroots support.”
Besides money, the outside groups brought added intensity and divisiveness to the race.
In the final week of the campaign, the Club for Growth ran a television ad hammering Dinsdale for giving “thousands of dollars in campaign donations to Democrats” and for saying he would “always vote to raise the national debt level.”
A week ago, the Tea Party lost the first round of key primary fights when North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis won his state’s Republican U.S. Senate primary by defeating candidates linked to the movement.
That win allowed the party to avoid a potentially expensive and contentious runoff, and it is now focused on a November race against vulnerable Democratic incumbent Senator Kay Hagan.
Support for the Tea Party within the Republican Party is on the decline. About four in 10 Republicans classify themselves as Tea Party supporters, down from 61 percent in November 2010, according to a Gallup poll released last week.
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