Civil War: 3 Primaries to Watch

I love primaries. The first campaign I managed was a primary, decades ago. With most districts, and many states, firmly in either the "red" or "blue" camp, primaries are an important mechanism for voters to ensure that their elected officials remain true to the values and principles that won them office in the first place. It is also an important way for voters to signal their priorities. In the next 6-8 weeks, three primaries, in particular, will say much about the current state of the Republican party and the conservative movement. 

1. Nebraska Senate -- May 13th

The race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Mike Johanns isn't shaping up as the cliche conservative vs. establishment match-up. Conservatives have split between the two leading candidates, former State Treasurer Shane Osborn and former Bush Administration official and current Midland University President Ben Sasse. Many conservatives, including the Senate Conservative Fund, Club for Growth and Sarah Palin are backing Sasse. Others, like Freedomworks and Phyllis Schlafely are backing Osborn. 

The race isn't an obvious candidate for a conservative civil war. Conservative backers of Sasse have described Osborn as the "establishment" candidate, but it is a cumbersome moniker. 

Osborn defeated a GOP establishment appointee in a primary to win the Treasurer's office. While in office, he cut his office's budget by more than 12% and eliminated some positions. He spoke at one of the first Tea Party rallies in 2009 against ObamaCare. A decorated naval aviator, he became famous when his plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and he piloted his damaged plane, and its 24-person crew, to safety.

The other leading candidate, Ben Sasse, is basing much of his campaign on a repeal of ObamaCare. In past writings that have surfaced, however, Sasse argued that the individual mandate, which is the foundation of ObamaCare, "might be a good idea." Previously, Sasse wrote in favor of Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program that was, until ObamaCare, the largest entitlement expansion in decades. He called the new entitlement a "policymaker's dream." 

In addition, Politico reported Friday that Sasse served as a "senior advisor" to Mike Leavitt's consulting firm, helping companies "implement" ObamaCare. Leavitt is a liberal Republican who served as Bush's HHS Secretary. 

Nebraska businessman Mike Simmonds donated the maximum amount allowed to Sasse's campaign. In an email, Simmonds wrote:

And, in this election I am applying a litmus test even it keeps me from supporting any candidate.  I will not support any candidate who scores political points on the backs of our Hispanic population … The language coming-out of our right-wing Senators and House members is doing long-term destruction to our Republican Party.  We must take the Ronald Reagan approach to dealing with the so-called illegal Hispanics who are here.  Yes, that means granting them complete amnesty and protecting our borders.  Pretty simple.  Those who crossed our border illegally did so with the implied consent and open arms of our country.  The American population at large are all co-conspirators in this so-called illegal action of the Hispanics.  We need this population and they deserve respect.

It is unclear whether or not Simmonds applied a "litmus test" in this primary.

The divide among conservatives in this race sparks memories of the 2012 primary for Nebraska Senate. Conservative groups split among the two leading candidates, allowing little-known state Sen. Deb Fisher to win the primary and, ultimately, the general election. 

A recent Breitbart poll showed Osborn leading Sasse by 11 points, but businessman Sid Dinsdale in third with 9%. If the conservative civil war continues, Dinsdale could repeat Fisher's path to the Senate. 

2. Idaho House District 2 -- May 20th

Idaho's 2nd Congressional District, in the eastern portion of the state is one of the most conservative districts in the country. Mitt Romney carried the seat by 31-points in 2012. Eight-term incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson, a close ally of John Boehner, however, has accumulated the record of a northeast liberal Republican. Simpson faces attorney Bryan Smith in the May primary. Smith has the backing of almost all national conservative groups. The Chamber of Commerce, Rep. Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are supporting Simpson. 

As an appropriator, Simpson has been a staunch defender of earmarks. He supported efforts to make Obama's stimulus proposal even larger than its eventual $800 billion price-tag. He has voted for TARP, bailouts, debt ceiling increases and tax increases. In 2011, Simpson was one of only 3 Republicans to vote against continued defunding of the radical group ACORN.

The district is rated R+17 by Cook Political Report, so there is no chance of Democrats winning the seat. Anything less than a principled conservative is a waste of the political seat. 

3. Mississippi Senate -- June 3rd

After showing signs that he would retire, MS Sen. Thad Cochran announced that he would seek a 7th term in the Senate. He has served in the Senate for almost 40 years. Cochran first entered Congress when Richard Nixon was President. A long-time member of the Appropriations Committee, and a former Chair of the Committee, Cochran topped Citizens Against Government Waste's list of earmarkers in 2010, seeking half a billion in earmarks for his state. As my colleague Matthew Boyle reported, at least ten taxpayer-funded buildings in Mississippi are named after Cochran.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel is challenging Cochran in the primary. McDaniel announced his candidacy even before Cochran made known his plans for seeking reelection. In the final quarter of 2013, McDaniel actually outraised Cochran, although it is expected Cochran will make up the difference as the campaign progresses. National conservative groups have lined up to support McDaniel including, most recently, Sarah Palin. 

Political observer Larry Sabato has rated McDaniel as the most likely primary challenger to win this cycle. Recent polls have shown the race to be a dead heat. 


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