OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A prominent national tea party group will wade into a 2012 campaign for the first time Wednesday by naming its choice for U.S. Senate in Nebraska, but one of three GOP candidates seeking the nod questions whether such endorsements actually undermine the fledgling movement's rejection of party politics.
The endorsement from the Tea Party Express, which had some high-profile wins and losses in the 2010 congressional races, comes more than a year before Nebraska primary voters go to the polls.
Sal Russo, chief strategist of the organization, said the group previously announced plans to work to oust U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, citing the Democrat's role in advancing the White House-backed federal health care overhaul.
Its endorsement of one of Nelson's challengers at a news conference in Washington will be the group's first of the 2012 election cycle, but even one of the Republicans up for the backing expressed mixed feelings about it.
The tea party "started from a grass-roots movement, and now they're trying to make it more of a general (political action committee) — a lobbyist group, basically. I'm not so sure I like that myself, actually," said Pat Flynn, a Schuyler investment adviser.
Attorney General Jon Bruning and Treasurer Don Stenberg also are running as Republicans against Nelson, but they declined to comment on the possible endorsement. Another person, former Air Force captain Russell Anderson of Omaha, has filed as an independent but had no campaign contributions in the first quarter.
Nelson, a former governor considered one of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate, has not announced whether he will seek a third term, but he has a campaign manager and added more than $1 million to his campaign coffers from January through March. Despite his long tenure in Nebraska politics, polls have shown Nelson trailing his prospective opponents, partly reflecting growing Republican strength in the state.
Tea party groups were instrumental in getting Rand Paul the nomination against an establishment GOP candidate in Kentucky en route to Paul's Senate victory in November. However, the movement also suffered a major loss when tea party-backed Sharron Angle was defeated against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, once considered vulnerable.
Russo said his group's Nebraska endorsement would be based off the candidates' records on tax and budget issues. The organization also likes to pick candidates with strong support who have a good shot at winning, he said.
"We look for people who have a good record of resisting the get along, go along," Russo said.
The tea party group's endorsement could play a big role in the race, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor Mike Wagner.
"It could mean a lot in terms of how much resources the candidates have to expend in the primaries, whether the Republican Party will come together and unify their support behind a particular candidate or whether they're going to beat each other up for a while," Wagner said. "If they do that, that's good for Nelson."
A Tea Party Express endorsement of a more ideologically extreme candidate would give that candidate a leg up in the GOP primary but likely help Nelson in the general election, Wagner said. However, an endorsement of Bruning, considered by many as the presumptive GOP favorite, could unite Republican primary voters and make for an easier primary race, strengthening the attorney general for a general election contest against Nelson, he said.