The tea party group originally endorsed Osborn way back in November, but Sasse’s first run for public office has attracted a growing coterie of conservatives such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth and Sarah Palin.
FreedomWorks clearly was uncomfortable with Osborn’s alliance with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. FreedomWorks PAC President Matt Kibbe released a statement saying, “Both Osborn and Sasse are great people, and this was not a decision taken lightly. The question at the heart of this decision is, who would caucus with the Freedom Caucus, and who would fall in line with the establishment?”
“At this point, it is clear that Shane Osborn formed allegiances with Mitch McConnell and the K Street lobbying class. For us, that progression away from the grassroots has tipped the balance,” he continued. “FreedomWorks’ PAC has a responsibility to endorse the most reliable candidate for liberty, and after following the evolution of this primary, it’s clear that Ben Sasse is the man for the job.”
It’s a surprising turnaround for FreedomWorks, whose vice president, Dean Clancy, had aggressively criticized Sasse, calling him inauthentic and “the establishment candidate” who was hiding his true feelings about Obamacare. Clancy apparently has since left the organization.
Sasse, former assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush, has positioned himself as the most strident anti-Obamacare candidate in the race, but his opponents have picked apart his many speeches, writings and work in health care looking for contradictions in his statements about the Affordable Care Act.
Last fall, FreedomWorks called Sasse a “Mitt Romney-style technocrat masquerading for temporary political purposes an an anti-Obamacare firebrand” and accused him of wanting to replace Obamacare with “Obamacare Lite.”
Apparently, all that has been forgotten. FreedomWorks said Friday it changed its endorsement after getting input from activists in Nebraska and deciding Sasse is “the most consistently conservative candidate in the Nebraska Senate race.” The group’s softened stance toward Sasse was evident when Kibbe said on the Glenn Beck show that either Sasse or Osborn would be a “win-win.”
Sasse is president of Midland University in his hometown of Fremont. Osborn, a former state treasurer, has better name recognition and has been leading in the polls, but this week his campaign was hit with questions raised by the Omaha World-Herald about his decision to land a Navy surveillance plan in China in 2001 after colliding with a Chinese fighter.
Instead of ditching his plane and risking the lives of his 23 crew members, Osborn landed on a Chinese island where his team was held captive for nearly two weeks. He was hailed as a hero after the international incident, and then was elected state treasurer after leaving the military.
But now some military members have questioned his portrayal as a hero, given the intelligence that likely landed in Chinese hands. He also apologized for circulating an unsigned memo condoning his actions with a U.S. Navy letterhead even though it was not officially approved.
In response to the FreedomWorks turnabout, Osborn released a statement characterizing the decision as evidence of Sasse’s Washington connections.
“Today, the contrast in the race for U.S. Senate in Nebraska has crystallized,” he said. “I am the proven conservative candidate who will fight Washington, D.C., and Ben Sasse is the candidate of Washington, D.C. Sasse has garnered the support of Washington, D.C. special interest groups because of his long history living and working in the city.”
He noted FreedomWorks has attacked Sasse for months for his lack of conservatism.
“Sasse is selling himself as the Obamacare nemesis, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Osborn said. “Nebraskans aren’t looking to Washington to choose their next senator. The choice is clear for Nebraskans. I will remain focused on Nebraska voters and continue to discuss my plans to defend the Constitution and protect our conservative values.”
Sasse’s spokesman, Tyler Grassmeyer, released a statement thanking FreedomWorks for its support.
“FreedomWorks told us they’ve heard about our campaign from grassroots Nebraska conservatives,” he said. “They’ve attended our anti-ObamaCare townhalls in droves, and have heard Ben forcefully make the case against ObamaCare for months.”
Sasse, Osborn, Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale and Omaha attorney Bart McLeay are battling for the GOP nomination in the May 13 primary, with the winner set to take on Democrat Dave Domina in November.