With less than a week to go, the Nebraska Republican primary race for U.S. Senate has turned into the nastiest political fight in the country, with the two top candidates and their allies accusing each other of everything from using their own children as political shields to betraying the U.S. Navy.
Now, the campaign between establishment-friendly former state Treasurer Shane Osborn and tea party-backed university President Ben Sasse, which has turned uncharacteristically negative for Nebraska, is creating an opening for a lesser-known, wealthy challenger who some Republicans argue would be the most liberal of all.
Mr. Osborn has taken to calling Mr. Sasse “Beltway Ben,” and a super PAC with ties to Mr. Osborn and a former campaign aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, accused Mr. Sasse of trying to hide behind his two daughters to avoid political attacks.
“It really is an interesting battle between kind of the tea party wing and traditionalists,” said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska. “There is the perception here that Sasse is kind of the new kid on the block, hasn’t really paid his dues in terms of establishment Nebraska Republican politics here.”
A dearth of polling has made the race difficult to handicap, but Mr. Sasse is trying to ride the wave of endorsements from conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and high-profile Republicans including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.
Mr. Osborn on Thursday picked up the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who has become known nationwide for his staunch opposition to illegal immigration.
Mr. Hibbing said the state’s residents aren’t used to such negativity in political campaigning.
“Nebraskans are just completely mystified by any negative ads,” he said. “We’re way behind the rest of the country in many respects, which is good in a way.”
The noise could create an opening for banker Sid Dinsdale, who is on a “No Bull — Steering Clear of Washington, D.C. Special Interests” tour, which is stopping in about 40 Nebraska cities this week, according to his campaign.
Mr. Dinsdale, who is running third according to candidate internal polling, has other Republicans worried.
“I think Sid is viewed as kind of the moderate in the race,” said Mark Fahleson, a former state party chairman who is backing Mr. Sasse.
Nevertheless, Club For Growth Action rolled out a statewide TV buy Thursday labeling Mr. Dinsdale “really liberal” for, among other things, supporting an increase in the federal debt ceiling.
The Madison Project, which is supporting conservative candidates, released a radio ad this week accusing Mr. Dinsdale of being a “counterfeit conservative” for his debt ceiling position and for questioning some congressional Republicans’ failed effort to defund President Obama’s health care law last year.