It was nearly a year ago when Senator Mike Johanns (R-Nebraska) announced he wouldn’t be seeking another term. In terms of the general election, this isn’t one that we’ve been paying a lot of attention to since the GOP should have little difficulty retaining the seat. The primary election, however, isn’t nearly as clear cut. (Nebraska goes pretty early, with the filing deadline barely a month away and the election being in the middle of May.) So far, on the Republican side, it seems to quickly be boiling down to a battle between Shane Osborn, a decorated naval aviator and former state treasurer and Ben Sasse, president of Midland University and a man with extensive private sector business experience and a deep background in healthcare issues.

From the small amount of traffic I’ve seen on this race, conservatives seem to be jumping heavily on the Sasse bandwagon so far. I’m not seeing much in Osborn’s background to find objectionable except for some complaints that he attracted early “establishment” support and funding. Sasse, on the other hand, has garnered the endorsement of the Senate Conservative fund, largely on his strong, stated opposition to Obamacare. These factors even prompted Erick Erickson to declare that you should send Sasse “every penny you can muster.

But when asking around, I see that some people have been doing some digging and Sasse’s history of opposing Obamacare might not be exactly as billed. Sasse has experience as a former member of HHS under George W. Bush and spoke on the subject many times. One such occasion was a health care summit at his university in 2010. During the presentation he had plenty of complaints about the specifics of Obamacare to be sure, but he also closed with this:

Ultimately, Sasse said the healthcare bill “is an important first step” in thinking about healthcare coverage, but does not address problems that drive the growth of uninsured Americans…

“Fundamentally,” he told the crowd, “the message I want you to take away from this is that from 2008 to 2010 we didn’t deal with the major healthcare and health sector challenges we face. From 2010 to 2012, Republicans are disinclined to do anything constructive to solve the problem, and are instead going to have symbolic repeal votes.”

That wasn’t his only instance of commenting along these lines. As early as 2009 Sasse said of Obamacare, “Is it hopeless? Of course not. Some of the business opportunities amid the disruptions, for instance, are going to be huge and fascinating.” Also in 2009, Sasse co-authored an article for the Wall Street Journal debating the so called “public option” and health care reform. He makes some excellent points about how Medicare is rife with fraud and inefficiencies as well as how private insurance is far more desirable than a government run system. But he also includes this:

None of these considerations should be interpreted as a defense of the status quo, or a denial of the fact that major health reform is needed. It is, and now.

There are indeed many places where commercial health insurance is inefficient — for example, by trying to exclude the sick rather than compete for the business of managing their ailments more effectively. Moreover, the facilitation of a national insurance exchange could lower information and search costs for our increasingly mobile workforce.

But a lot of the comments I’ve seen relate in particular to the “business opportunities” which Obamacare might afford, and they are frequently attributed to Sasse’s former boss at HHS, “political and professional mentor” and still major contributor (to the tune of $2,300) to his campaign, Mike Leavitt. The close relationship of these two raises some questions, particularly since Erick Erickson – a big Sasse supporter as noted above – had this to say about Leavitt.

One issue, above all others, still gives many of the base qualms about supporting Romney. He never distanced himself from Romneycare and over the past several years and gone back and forth between definitive statements on full repeal of Obamacare and partial repeal of Obamacare.

Conservatives should therefore consider it unacceptable that Mike Leavitt has any role on the Romney campaign. Having pushed states to start implementing Obamacare, potentially to his profit, we must ask who is doing the vetting at Team Romney.

Mike Leavitt does not sound like the type of guy who will look Mitch McConnell in the eye in 2013 and demand, on behalf of President Romney, full and unconditional repeal of Obamacare.

There’s a ton of material out there if you Google Mike Leavitt Obamacare.

I’m not sure that any of this is disqualifying, but there does seem to be something of a shift in tone about Obamacare here. Sasse’s background and knowledge of health care issues and his business experience are definite pluses, but I’m not sure his Obamacare opposition is any stronger – or even as strong – as Osborn’s. And I’m not hearing much to disqualify Osborn either, particularly in terms of O-care and amnesty for illegals. The “mess” aspect of this race is that it’s shaping up to be yet another Red on Red, Tea Party vs “establishment” battle. But competition breeds vetting and is healthy for the body politic, so it will be an interesting primary race to watch. And we should get a good winner out of it even if the general election will (hopefully) be a fairly safe walk to the finish line for whoever gets the nomination.

Any of you Cornhuskers have more information on Osborn (positive or negative) to offer beyond what’s in the campaign website bio and a few local appearance quotes? The pickings are rather slim in the national media on this race.