POLITICS: PennAve

Q&A with Mike Johanns: Negative ads in Nebraska GOP Senate primary spark Sid Dinsdale surge

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Politics,Congress,Republican Party,Tea Party,Nebraska,2014 Elections,David M. Drucker,Campaigns,PennAve,Deb Fischer,Mike Johanns,Ben Sasse,Shane Osborn

Is Sid Dinsdale about to follow in Nebraskan Sen. Deb Fischer’s footsteps and swipe an open seat from the two more established frontrunners? Sen. Mike Johanns believes it’s becoming more possible by the day.

Johanns, the retiring Nebraska Republican whose seat is being fought over in Tuesday's Cornhusker State GOP Senate primary, said the escalating, negative campaign between Shane Osborn and Ben Sasse is a big turnoff to voters and could drive them into the well-funded and waiting arms of Dinsdale.

Osborn is a military veteran and the former state treasurer supported by Washington's Republican establishment. Sasse is president of small Nebraska college and ex-official in President George W. Bush's administration backed by Washington's Tea Party establishment. Dinsdale is a personally wealthy banker whose family is active in philanthropic efforts throughout the state with no particular base of support.

But Johanns said the campaign reminds him a lot of Fischer’s 2012 GOP primary victory — and his own bid for the gubernatorial nomination in 1998. In both contests, the two frontrunners battled in increasingly bitter fashion, only to watch the underdog in the race pass them by as Nebraska Republicans, with an aversion to mudslinging, turned to alternative candidates perceived to have run a positive campaign.

In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Johanns shared his views on the Nebraska Senate primary, including his opinion of the outside money pouring into the state and the impact it could have on the outcome. Johanns is officially neutral in the primary and plans to stay that way.

The Washington Examiner: What’s the state of play in the Senate primary?

Johanns: The outside groups have now turned their attacks on a gentleman by the name of Sid Dinsdale, which tells me that their polling shows that Dinsdale is surging -- that his numbers are moving. And not a little bit -- moving dramatically because clearly they want to try and beat him up. They had totally ignored Dinsdale up to this point. And, Dinsdale's run a completely above-board race; no outside groups, no attack ads, just run a very, very positive campaign.

Examiner: Between Osborn and Sasse, is one side more responsible for the negative campaigning than the other?

Johanns: People are sick of outside groups, they’re sick of the negative ads, they’re sick of the attacks, they’re just sick of the whole thing … A candidate who works to get those [outside group] endorsements and then gets them can’t disavow that those ads are on. I see the campaign and those outside attacks as part and parcel of the same campaign … Nebraska voters are figuring this out. I just think they’re enormously discerning; they realize who's been running the negative ads and that’s why I think Dinsdale is surging. He’s had clean hands in all of this.

Examiner: How similar to the 2012 Senate GOP primary campaign is this contest?

Johanns: I think it’s identical to that and it’s identical to what happened to me in my governor’s primary. What happened is, you had two well-funded candidates beating the living daylights out of each other; people got sick of it and looked for an alternative. Today, from what I’m hearing, there’s somewhere around 15 percent undecided, and we’re just a few days away from the race, and I think what’s happening is Dinsdale’s picking up the undecideds.

Examiner: Do Nebraska conservatives share the same views as the D.C.-based groups that are supporting Sasse?

Johanns: I do believe if you polled Nebraska voters, you would find about 20 percent that said, 'I'm a Tea Party person.' ... Most of them would be registered Republicans, but they'd say, ‘I'm Tea Party.' But their views do not necessarily coincide with Club for Growth, because after all, there are many things that Club for Growth would oppose that most Nebraskans would support. Consequently, I think Ben Sasse has consolidated some Tea Party votes, but I think it's very divided.

Examiner: Who benefits more from a Dinsdale surge, if he doesn’t win?

Johanns: That’s really a good question. I think Sasse’s votes are pretty well consolidated today. Osborn may get some benefit from that. But I do think at the end of the day, there’s a reason why people are undecided five days before the election. The reason is that they haven’t gotten comfortable with anything that’s out there and they’re looking for an alternative. Sid has run a very low-key sort of race, just like Deb Fischer did.

But he’s been out there, he’s been traveling the state, the family’s well known, it’s a very respected family, they’ve done a lot of philanthropic things — they’ve done well but they’ve been willing to help the state, help communities.

Examiner: Any predictions?

Johanns: I’d be hard-pressed to predict because today I think it’s knotted up ... I think anybody who can make the case that they’re going to represent Nebraskans, not people who have huge resources in New York or wherever, I think they have a pretty good chance here ... I [don’t] appreciate the outside groups; there are consequences for that. They expect something back; they expect your vote.

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