Nebraska Tea Party in Disarray Ahead of Senate Primary

The 'establishment' and 'tea party' labels just aren't working in the Cornhusker State.

Republican Senate hopefuls Shane Osborn, the former State Treasurer,  and Midland University President Ben Sasse, right, participate in a debate in Omaha, Neb., on March 11, 2014.

The political landscape surrounding Republican Senate hopefuls Shane Osborn and Ben Sasse in Nebraska is tangled.

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As Republicans head to the polls Tuesday for primary day in the Nebraska, many see the Senate race in the Cornhusker State not as a war between the establishment and the tea party but rather local decision-making versus the influence of Washington, D.C.

In Nebraska, the race to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Mike Johanns features two top candidates and a surging third contender.

[READ: Ted Cruz's Endorsement Test in Nebraska]  

Early favorite Shane Osborn, a former state treasurer and decorated naval pilot, garnered the initial endorsement of tea party group FreedomWorks, a national group. But when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is loathed by many tea party conservatives, endorsed Osborn, the group FreedomWorks pulled its support. The group instead tapped Ben Sasse, president of Midland University and a former Bush Administration official. Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund had also jumped in to endorse Sasse. Then came tea party wannabe-king-makers Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, who also stated support for Sasse

“I think a lot of people saw it as, if McConnell is supporting a candidate it means they are part of the Washington problem,” says Richard Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, and the author of “Takeover: the 100-Year War for the Soul of the GOP and How Conservatives Can Finally Win.” “That caused a lot of Republicans to take a look at Ben Sasse.”

The five-way Republican Senate primary has revealed an unusual test case for the conservative wing of the Republican party. What happens when the top candidates in the race are all conservative enough to win a fraction of support from the tea party, but one is anointed the choice of outside groups from the Beltway?

In Nebraska, the traditional labels of “establishment” and “tea party” are blurring so much that some Nebraska GOP voters are dubious as to why the national conservative groups felt the need to get involved in the race at all. Some voters in the state say the race is a perfect example of how the national tea party has lost touch with the grass roots supporters who helped them rise to power. In recent months, media reports have shown many groups are spending more money on their infrastructure than on candidate who can further their causes in Congress.

“They don’t have our best interests at heart,” says David McBride, a Nebraska voter who used to lead the Buffalo County tea party group in the state.

[ALSO: The Senate 7: The GOP's Curbed Enthusiasm]

McBride says the Senate primary has exposed a major division within the local tea party as religious and libertarian factions battle it out for control.

“Different factions are not getting along,” says McBride. “The tea party’s unity is unraveling.”

Doug Kagan, the president of the Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, echoed the same sentiment and said this election has shown members are “split between the candidates” despite the national groups rallying around Sasse.

“There is growing resentment out there. National groups are coming in pouring in millions of dollars to support one candidate or another,” says Kagan. “There are mystery groups pumping all this money in. It is just backfiring.”

Sasse has received more than $1.7 million in support from outside groups like Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, Ensuring a Conservative Nebraska, Patriots for Economic Freedom and Club for Growth, according to the most current campaign finance reports compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Osborn meanwhile has received $755,720 in support.

Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale, however, a third candidate in the race is also seeing a last minute surge in the polls. Dinsdale is billing himself as the underdog with  the strongest local loyalties of all the candidates because he has pledged not to take money from Washington. But he also has the luxury of self-financing, having donated at least $1 million to his own campaign thus far.