Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer, left; Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, center; and Nebraska Treasurer Don Stenberg, right, debate April 15, 2012, in Omaha, Neb. Nati Harnik/AP
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For the second time in two weeks, super PACs will play a major role in determining the outcome of a U.S. Senate primary contest.

Republican Jon Bruning, Nebraska’s attorney general, was expected to win in a cakewalk for the seat, soon to be vacated by retiring Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat. Instead, two underfunded insurgent candidates — Don Stenberg and Deb Fischer — are giving him a run for his money, thanks in large part to a handful of outside groups.

Bruning has the fundraising advantage, having raised more than $3.6 million for his campaign. Stenberg has raised about $750,000, while Fischer has raised less than $440,000 for the race, including $35,000 of her own money.

But heading into today’s primary, conservative outside groups have spent more than $2 million on advertising, according to Federal Election Commission records, with nearly $1 million going toward ads attacking Bruning. The ads appear to have been effective — Bruning’s numbers have slipped, according to recent polls.

“This is an unusual amount of spending for a Nebraska primary,” said Michael Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I don’t think the Bruning campaign foresaw this.”

Last week, outside groups led by the conservative Club for Growth spent millions in the GOP U.S. Senate primary election in Indiana, where six-term incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar lost to Richard Mourdock, a tea party favorite.

The Club is again flexing its muscles in Nebraska, where it supports Stenberg. So far, its super PAC, called Club for Growth Action, has reported spending more than $714,000 opposing Bruning, mostly on radio and TV ads.

Only Sen. Jim DeMint’s leadership PAC, known as the Senate Conservatives Fund, has spent more on independent expenditures. DeMint’s group has invested more than $947,000 on messages touting Stenberg.

But while polls show that Bruning’s standing has fallen, Stenberg hasn’t experienced a boon. Instead, Fischer, who was endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin last week, has seen a last-minute surge.

“The top two contenders spent a lot of time bloodying each other up, leaving the door open to an alternative who wasn’t bloodied up yet,” said Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, chair of the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “The timing of the pro-Fischer spending couldn’t have been better.”

Since Friday, the Ending Spending Action Fund, a conservative super PAC, has spent more than $250,000 on a pair of last-minute ads designed to help Fischer across the finish line.

One ad, entitled, “Him: Anyone but Bruning,” plays ominous music as money rains down behind a picture of Bruning, who is accused of getting rich while in office. The other, entitled, “Her: Rancher, Mother, Leader,” plays more upbeat music and urges viewers to “surprise the world” and vote for Fischer, who is described as “conservative outsider” and “one of us.”

The super PAC — along with its sister nonprofit group, Ending Spending, Inc., which is organized under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code — advocate for decreasing government spending, balancing the budget and reducing the federal debt.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 and a lower court ruling, super PACs like the Ending Spending Action Fund can accept unlimited contributions and pay for ads that advocate for the election or defeat of federal candidates.

The ads cannot be coordinated with the candidates they support.

The Ending Spending Action Fund has reported raising about $1.2 million through March, when it filed its most recent campaign finance report. At that time, the super PAC had less than $2,000 cash on hand.

Joe Ricketts, the founder of the financial services giant now known as TD Ameritrade, is the super PAC’s sole individual donor. (Ending Spending, Inc., where Ricketts is the chairman and CEO, is the sole organizational contributor and has donated about $21,000 in “legal services.”)

Ricketts — a native of Nebraska who now lives in Little Jackson Hole, Wyo. — could not be reached for comment. But Brian Baker, the president of Ending Spending, confirmed that Ricketts was behind the cash boost that allowed the super PAC to play a role in the Nebraska Senate contest on Fischer’s side.

“We think she will be the strongest general election candidate,” Baker said, adding that Fischer was surging in the polls “well before we decided to place any ads.”

Baker declined to discuss if the Ending Spending Action Fund would continue to invest money in the race if Fischer loses the primary.

The winner is expected to face former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, the one-time governor of Nebraska, who is expected to be a formidable foe.

Wagner, of the University of Nebraska, predicted that outside groups will continue to be a significant force in the general election, especially in states with competitive U.S. Senate races. Republicans hope to win control of the Senate this November.

“This is the tip of iceberg for what the fall will bring,” Wagner said.

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Michael Beckel reported for the Center for Public Integrity from 2012 to 2017.