Bruning’s best-funded opponent, Don Stenberg, had used his state office to support capital punishment and advance abortion limits. He had support of a conservative, free-market behemoth, the Club for Growth, but Stenberg, too, was criticized for being too loose with taxpayer funds.
On Tuesday, both men lost.
The winner of the Nebraska Senate primary was won by Deb Fischer, a state legislator who had managed to stay out of the red-on-red crossfire. She was known mainly for gaining the endorsement of conservative icon Sarah Palin, and for an ad where she compared her opponents to Angus cattle.
The Nebraska results were just the latest signal that the GOP might be drifting back into the nasty intra-party feud about conservative bona fides that dogged it in 2010.
This time, the clashes are more complicated, because the party’s rightward factions have splintered and separated, and each now wants to hold candidates to their own particular test of conservative purity. The insurgents are now under attack from new insurgencies.
The next fights will come in the Texas Senate race and in House races around the country. For the GOP, Nebraska was a reminder that its coalition includes powerful groups that want to shove the party rightward — and don’t mind losing an election, or an incumbent, to make their point.
“We’re not afraid of losing races. We think that there is, you know, some benefit to our involvement, win or lose,” said Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman who heads the Club for Growth. He meant that even when very conservative candidates lose, they scare incumbents into voting more conservatively.
“When the Republican party doesn’t act like Republicans, they get thrown out,” Chocola said. “I’m not sure that the current leadership has fully learned those lessons.”
In 2010, insurgent tea party groups helped defeat a number of establishment candidates in Republican primaries. Several of those upstart primary winners went on to victory in November’s general election, including now-senators Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.).
But others fell flat. In Nevada and Delaware, particularly, weak and wacky Republican candidates lost, and let Democrats keep seats that had looked vulnerable.
This year, the same dynamic has already been repeated in Indiana, where longtime Sen. Richard Lugar (R) lost a primary to a more conservative, lesser-known challenger. Lugar was attacked for voting to confirm President Obama’s nominees for the Supreme Court and supporting economic bailout measures.
Now, polls show winner Richard Mourdock is a weaker general-election candidate than Lugar would have been. Still, Mourdock is running about even with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Joe Donnelly.