- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 2, 2014

ELMWOOD, Neb. (AP) - Compared with the acrimonious primary campaigns elsewhere, the race for the GOP Senate nomination in Nebraska sounds like two nice guys running for local Rotary Club president.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to all of you who have worn the uniform,” candidate Ben Sasse said during a recent debate, motioning to Shane Osborn, a Navy veteran best known as the pilot of an American spy plane forced down by the Chinese military in 2001 and its crew held for 12 days.

Minutes later, Osborn pledged “to support whoever wins” the four-way primary on May 13. But make no mistake, Nebraska is a new front in the bitter national struggle inside the Republican Party between established leaders determined to maintain control and right-wing insurgents trying to change the party’s direction.

Behind the public geniality, party powerbrokers including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies have quietly backed Osborn and steering the majority leader’s donors his way. Tea party groups are endorsing Sasse.

For Osborn, the extra help resulted in at least $73,000 in contributions last year from political action committees that regularly give to McConnell, including heavyweight UPS, according to Federal Election Commission records. And in January, a former McConnell chief of staff held a fundraiser for Osborn in Washington, D.C.

Sasse, the president of Midland University in Fremont, has received several times that amount from a group trying to unseat McConnell, plus support from some prominent tea-party figures.

The heavy outside influence is a change from previous elections, when party leaders largely left the choice to voters. But the ugly jousting between the factions in Congress and the party’s losses in 2012 ended that practice.

The party’s fault lines are evident here.

“You can’t just talk solutions. You’ve got to have experience,” said Omaha Republican J.R. Jasso, a fan of Osborn’s term as state treasurer.

“I’m sick of Washington walking all over us,” Lincoln-area GOP activist Carol Pitts said the next day at a Sasse campaign meeting in tiny Elmwood.

Races for Republican Senate nominations have become increasingly nasty in other states where veteran GOP senators are spending heavily to fight off primary challenges from the right by tea party-backed conservatives.

But ugly doesn’t play well with the many Nebraska voters who come from rural farm towns, where incivility is a no-no.

“Nebraska is very friendly, love-your-neighbor state,” said Andy Clements, Cass County Republican vice chairman and a banker in Elmwood, population 634. “Voters like it when candidates are civil during election seasons.”

Osborn acknowledged pulling a punch during the debate, in part because “Nebraskans don’t like that.”

He and Sasse have emerged as the favorites with less than six weeks until the primary. The vote will make the winner the prohibitive favorite to be the next senator from GOP-heavy Nebraska. The seat is being vacated by retiring Republican Mike Johanns.

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