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The Open-Seat Senate Race No One’s Talking About

Osborn is running for Senate. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
Osborn is running for Senate. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

The open Senate seat that no one is talking about could get a little more interesting this month.

The retirement of Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., next year has invited a crop of ambitious Republicans that includes rising stars and fresh faces in Nebraska’s political realm. Given the state’s Republican lean, Johanns’ replacement will most likely be decided among them in the May 13 GOP primary.

Already in the race are former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, Midland University President Ben Sasse and attorney Bart McLeay. Sid Dinsdale, head of one of the largest banks in the state and son of a well-known businessman, Roy Dinsdale, will reportedly announce his intentions as early as next week.

Dinsdale’s entrance would provide another wrinkle into what will be an intriguing intraparty slugfest by early next year. Unlike other primaries around the country, this one in the heavily Republican Cornhusker State is not expected to affect the competitiveness of the general election.

But a year after a surprise outcome in the GOP Senate primary produced now-Sen. Deb Fischer, this year’s lineup could be equally unpredictable.

“Shane has the natural advantage of being the front-runner, because he has run statewide before,” Nebraska-based Republican consultant Sam Fischer said. “However, the history of Nebraska primary politics have proven that the front-runners never coast to victory. With a potential Sid Dinsdale entry into the race, it will makes things interesting.”

Beyond his time as state treasurer, Osborn, a former Navy pilot, is known for being detained in China in 2001 after a Chinese fighter plane collided with Osborn’s plane. While that helped land him on People’s 50 Most Beautiful People list, Osborn is running on his record of “fixing things that were broken.”

Osborn posted $229,000 in cash on hand at the end of June, his first fundraising quarter. After the Sept. 30 third-quarter fundraising deadline, Republican operatives in the state will be watching to see how well Sasse performs after jumping into the race in July. Sasse has kept a relatively low profile ever since.

“Ben has been focused on what he should be focused on, which is making connections and developing a fundraising base,” said former state GOP Chairman Mark Fahleson, who has endorsed Sasse. “He has to catch up to Shane Osborn — hopefully he can post a number close to what Shane had in his first quarter.”

This is Sasse’s first bid for public office, and he’s running on his record of helping turn around Midland University and as an expert on the complexities of the new health care law — which he opposes. Sasse is a former chief of staff to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and former assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.

A Gravis Marketing automated poll released Monday found Osborn way ahead of his primary foes. He took 41 percent, followed by Dinsdale with 7 percent, Sasse with 5 percent and McLeay with 2 percent. Most of the 1,842 registered voters surveyed had never heard of the latter three candidates, and some of Osborn’s early support may stem from his name — former Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., remains a popular figure after coaching the University of Nebraska football team to national championships.

The race may not take off until early next year, and even then it could be overshadowed by an even larger Republican primary field for governor. If it’s anything like last year’s nomination fight — when Fischer didn’t take a lead in the polls until days before the primary — predicting the outcome before May could prove difficult.

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