Sen. Mike Lee and former Gov. Mike Leavitt are not seen as natural political allies, but both of them are lining up behind the same conservative Senate candidate in Nebraska and one of them has become a controversial figure in that race.
Earlier this month, Lee, R-Utah, became the latest tea party luminary to endorse Ben Sasse in the tough Republican primary fight, with the winner expected to defeat the Democrat and claim the seat in November.
"His temperament, his demeanor, his background and his intellectual skills come together in such a way that, I think, would make him a very appealing colleague," Lee told the Omaha World-Herald.
Nebraska Treasurer Shane Osborn, Sasse’s closest competitor according to polls, has tried to turn Sasse’s background against him, particularly his association with Leavitt.
Sasse served under Leavitt in the Department of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration and the two became friends. In recent years, Leavitt’s consulting firm, Leavitt Partners, has helped states implement the Affordable Care Act, and Sasse appeared as an unpaid adviser on at least one panel.
Osborn says Sasse’s work with Leavitt undermines his constant calls to repeal the law known as Obamacare.
Sasse’s campaign has brushed off the links to Leavitt Partners, telling Politico he only discussed improving the use of computers in health care and pointing out he was never paid by the group that helped states like New Mexico set up a health-insurance portal tied to the Affordable Care Act.
At first a spokeswoman at Leavitt Partners said Sasse never assisted the firm, but when shown a PowerPoint presentation from 2010 that identified Sasse as a senior adviser, she recanted and acknowledged he did some early advising.
Employees at Leavitt Partners have supported Sasse’s campaign financially. He raised at least $8,500 from the firm’s employees and that doesn’t count the $10,400 given by Leavitt and his wife Jackie.
Beyond Leavitt and Lee, Sasse has the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, two key tea party affiliated groups.
Osborn had been supported by FreedomWorks, another tea party behemoth, which is usually closely associated with Lee. The group switched its allegiance to Sasse on Friday.
The primary, which includes two other Republican candidates, will take place May 13.
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