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.
The latest attacks involve allies of Mr. Sasse running ads accusing Mr. Osborn, the pilot of the 2001 spy flight that was forced down in China, of dishonoring his Navy service.
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. Osborn is trying to stave off Mr. Sasse and is being aided by the Freedom Pioneers Action Network, a super PAC that the Omaha World-Herald said has ties to Mr. Osborn and Mr. McConnell.
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.
Mr. Dinsdale dismissed the charges, saying Washington interest groups "continue to meddle in this election by spending incredible amounts of money trying to tell Nebraskans how to vote."
"These groups are using lies to try and fool Nebraskans about who the true conservative is in this race. Their claims could not be further from the truth," he said. "I am a lifelong, pro-life conservative who has voted for Republicans in every election and supported countless Republican candidates' campaigns."
But the Freedom Pioneers Action Network's sudden interest in the race raises eyebrows in a contest that has drawn attention from groups that Mr. McConnell has vowed to "crush" this election cycle, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.
Mr. Osborn and his allies say Mr. Sasse, a Health and Human Services Department adviser in the George W. Bush administration, can't be trusted to fight Obamacare. They say he called the Affordable Care Act an "important first step" in fixing the country's health care problems.
Mr. Sasse said that line is being taken out of context and countered with an ad featuring his two daughters saying he ignores attacks and that they pray for his political opponents at breakfast every morning.
The Freedom Pioneers Action Network responded with an ad accusing Mr. Sasse of trying to hide behind his children.
Mr. Sasse's campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the ad.
Justin Brasell, a former McConnell campaign staffer who is now campaign manager in Rep. Tom Cotton's Senate bid in Arkansas but is listed as treasurer of the Freedom Pioneers Action Network, abruptly left that position Tuesday.
Reached on Tuesday, he insisted there was no coordination between the group and any of Mr. McConnell's people. He did not say why the group was becoming active in the Nebraska race and did not respond to a follow-up phone message.
Meanwhile, the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee that has angered Mr. McConnell for opposing Republican incumbents in some primaries this election cycle, released a 30-second television ad this week lauding Mr. Sasse for being a "proven fiscal conservative, who will fight tooth and nail to fully repeal Obamacare."
The 60 Plus Association, a seniors group that has endorsed Mr. Sasse, has gone on the attack with a 60-second spot featuring three retired Nebraska veterans saying they cannot support Mr. Osborn, who has been jockeying with Mr. Sasse for front-runner status in the race.
Mr. Osborn, a former pilot in the Navy, had to apologize after his campaign circulated a fraudulent memo on Navy letterhead trying to defend his conduct during a 2001 incident in which he landed a Navy reconnaissance plane in China after the plane was hit by a Chinese fighter.
The incident turned into a major international crisis, and Mr. Osborn's handling of the incident and the sensitive information and equipment on the plane has become a campaign issue.
"An officer that's willing to stoop to something like create a fake memo just shows a total lack of character and is not someone that we need in the United States Senate," retired Nebraska Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Carl Lorenzen says in the ad.
While not addressing the accusations, Mr. Osborn's campaign dismissed the ad in a statement as "disrespectful to every single American who has ever worn the uniform."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.