The tea party scored a victory in Nebraska’s Republican Senate primary, a win that groups tied to the limited-government movement are banking will boost momentum heading into the heart of the 2014 nomination calendar.
Ben Sasse, who the Associated Press declared the winner, was backed by such tea party leaders as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. National groups aligned with the tea party also endorsed him in the race to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Mike Johanns, a Republican.
Nebraska's primary, as well as one held today in West Virginia, will be followed by others on May 20 and June 3 that will draw more national attention and carry greater consequence.
Those primaries in Kentucky, Idaho, Georgia and Mississippi will reveal how much of a threat tea party candidates pose to traditional Republicans trying to win control of the Senate in November’s election.
National Republican leaders are seeking to avoid the selection of untested, tea party-aligned candidates who could hurt their chances to win the chamber, as happened in the 2010 and 2012 elections. The party needs a net gain of six seats to oust the Democratic majority in the Senate.
In 2012, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a six-term Republican, lost in a primary to a tea party-backed candidate, who was then defeated in the general election by Democrat Joe Donnelly. Two years earlier, then-Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware was beaten in a Republican Senate primary by Christine O’Donnell, a tea party favorite who during the general election campaign was forced to deny she was a witch. She lost to a Democrat.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington rates Nebraska as "solid Republican" in this year's election, so Sasse is likely to prevail in November. Lawyer Dave Domina, 63, won the Democratic primary for the seat in a state where President Barack Obama took just 38 percent of the vote in 2012.
Sasse, 42, a former assistant secretary of health and human services in George W. Bush's administration who now serves as president of Midland University in Fremont, Neb., represented one of the best opportunities for the tea party to claim a win in a contested Senate primary this year.
Republican incumbents have had plenty of intra-party challengers this year, although most of the tea party-aligned candidates in those races have failed to spark the kind of electoral excitement their predecessors did in 2010 and 2012.
With 87 percent of precincts reporting, Sasse had 49.7 percent of the vote in the five-candidate field. He was followed by banking executive Sid Dinsdale, 61, at 22.1 percent and former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, 39, at 21.3 percent. Two others were splitting the remainder.
Besides Cruz and Palin, Sasse was endorsed by three top Washington-based groups aligned with the tea party: the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund. He was also backed by the Nebraska Farm Bureau, a coveted endorsement in a state with a large agriculture presence.
Those outside groups brought added intensity and divisiveness to the race.
In the final week of the campaign, the Club for Growth ran a television ad hammering Dinsdale for giving "thousands of dollars in campaign donations to Democrats" and for saying he would "always vote to raise the national debt level."
A week ago, the tea party lost the first round of key Republican primary fights when North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis won his state's Senate primary by defeating candidates aligned with the movement.
That win allowed the party to avoid a potentially expensive and divisive runoff, and it is now focused on a November race against vulnerable Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan.
Support for the tea party within the Republican Party is on the decline. About four in 10 Republicans classify themselves as tea party supporters, down from 61 percent in November 2010, according to a Gallup poll released last week.
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