Shane Osborn, former state treasurer and U.S. Navy hero, is the clear frontrunner in the May 13 Republican primary for the seat of Nebraska's retiring Sen. Mike Johanns, a seat certain to remain in GOP hands.
According to a recent Public Opinion Strategies poll, Osborn, 40, has the vote of 39 percent of likely GOP primary voters, comfortably ahead of Midland University President Ben Sasse and millionaire banker Sid Dinsdale at 7 percent each. Omaha "super-lawyer" Bert McLeay is last in the survey with 1 percent of the vote.
The poll was conducted for Osborn's campaign, but The Hill reported
that "Osborn led an earlier poll of the GOP primary with a similar margin."
Much of the analysis from pundits and pols concludes that Osborn's front-runner status is due to his name recognition as the lone candidate who previously has won statewide office.
In addition, the University of Nebraska graduate is well known for his heroism in 2001 as a U.S. Navy pilot.
When his reconnaissance plane had a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter and he was forced to land in China, Osborn and his crew endured 12 days of interrogation before they were finally released. He later was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Meritorious Service Medal.
"I'm sure name recognition is important," Osborn told Newsmax, "but I campaign as though I'm 10 points behind in the polls."
He proudly noted that he was the first candidate in the race, has covered 35,000 miles in the state, and visited all of its 93 counties.
Johanns announced last February that he was retiring from the Senate after one term, saying he wants a "quieter time" to focus on his family after a busy political career that included stints as governor and as President George W. Bush's agriculture secretary.
But unlike the five states in which Democratic senators are retiring and the races to succeed them are all considered up for grabs, the Senate contest in the Cornhusker State is almost sure to be decided in the four-candidate GOP primary.
With Republicans holding every statewide office and U.S. House seat, it is no surprise to find that no heavyweight contender is vying for the Democratic nomination.
Because the Republican primary is tantamount to a November election victory, candidates can afford the luxury of "roughing it up" and outside groups are more likely to choose sides. So far, the contest has not grown personal or nasty.
All four Republican candidates are strong conservatives — pro-life, for Obamacare repeal, against any tax increase — and they disagree on little except who should be the Republican nominee.
But outside groups are beginning to weigh in. The Club for Growth and Senate Conservative Fund, for example, are already in the camp of Sasse, who has just completed a statewide television blitz.
For groups that are well known for backing political outsiders, this support for Sasse is somewhat of a surprise. A graduate of Harvard and holder of a Ph.D. from Yale, Sasse, 41, served in the Bush administration's Department of Health and Human Services and headed the transition team for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Another conservative group, FreedomWorks, is in Osborn's camp.
"Any group is welcome to be involved in this race," said Osborn, "but I prefer to focus on lining up Nebraskans." He pointed out his recent endorsements from 14 present or past state senators and 34 county sheriffs, and that he recently unveiled a veterans coalition that is supporting him.
Dinsdale and McLeay are expected to use their vast personal resources to become better known in the coming months.
The tactic of "self-funding" has a mixed history in Nebraska. GOP National Committeeman Pete Ricketts used personal funds as the 2006 Republican Senate nominee but lost badly. Republican Chuck Hagel, now secretary of Defense, used some of his personal fortune to launch his winning campaign in 1996 but was able to raise substantial sums from other donors as well.
The polls and odds may change in this race by the time May rolls around. But state and national Republican leaders aren't concerned. This is one Senate race they won't have to worry about in November.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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