WASHINGTON — A national anti-tax group known for playing rough in GOP primaries announced Tuesday that it will support Nebraska State Treasurer Don Stenberg for the state's open Senate seat.
Club for Growth endorsed Stenberg over two other major Republicans in the race, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Sen. Deb Fischer.
The group described Stenberg as the "pro-growth" candidate in the race who would fight to repeal the new health care law and cut federal spending.
"Don Stenberg is a lifelong champion of economic freedom and will be an ally for fiscal conservatives in Washington," said the group's president, Chris Chocola.
Founded in 1999, Club for Growth is tied to wealthy conservative figures and pro-business interests.
It spent more than $8.2 million during the 2010 election cycle, primarily on advertising that supported Republican candidates or opposed Democratic candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Unlike some other groups, Club for Growth doesn't just support Republicans it likes. It also blasts Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative, even if they are establishment figures or longtime incumbents.
For example, the group helped knock Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, out of contention for his party's nomination in the last election cycle.
In 2004, the group set Nebraska records for campaign spending by an outside group. It poured about $330,000 into the Republican primary contest for the state's 1st Congressional District, including its own independent expenditures and bundled contributions to its candidate.
Former Rep. Doug Bereuter, who was retiring that year, endorsed as his successor Curt Bromm, the speaker of the Legislature from Wahoo. Club for Growth endorsed Nebraska Cattlemen executive Greg Ruehle.
Bromm started out as the clear front-runner, but Club for Growth unleashed a television and radio advertising avalanche on Bromm, attacking his support for tax increases in the Legislature.
The group's endorsed candidate, Ruehle, finished a distant third in the seven-candidate field. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln edged out Bromm and went on to win the general election.
Club for Growth officials said they were simply happy to have doomed Bromm's bid.
The group also helped fund Republican Rep. Steve King's successful 2002 primary campaign in Iowa's 5th Congressional District and backed Rep. Adrian Smith in the 2006 GOP primary for Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District.
It's unclear how much of a priority Nebraska will be for the group this time around, as candidates battle to replace the retiring Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
Some political observers suggested other races will prove more attractive.
But Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said the organization isn't in the business of making an endorsement and walking away from its candidate. He said it will do everything possible to support Stenberg.
Polls and campaign finance reports show Bruning as the front-runner in the race, but the support of outside groups could help Stenberg overcome the spending gap. Stenberg previously scored the endorsement of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and his Senate Conservatives Fund.
Asked for reaction to the endorsement Tuesday, Bruning campaign manager Trent Fellers pointed to his candidate's support from within the state.
"Jon Bruning has built a network of support across Nebraska, including 93 county chairs, 39 Nebraska county attorneys, 79 county sheriffs and police chiefs and 15 Nebraska state senators, because Nebraskans know that Jon Bruning is the candidate in the race who will cut spending, balance the budget, and repeal Obamacare," Fellers said.
Fischer campaign manager Aaron Trost said that Nebraskans have responded to Fischer's "conservative record and commitment to reform Washington" and that their grass-roots network will carry the day.
"While our career politician opponents are focused on out-of-state special interest groups, Senator Fischer is very proud of running a campaign that is focused on Nebraska," he said.
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