Ben Sasse has just won a decisive victory in the Nebraska Republican Senate primary. As of this writing, the race has been called by the Associated Press and Sasse holds a 27 point lead over his nearest competitor, with 79 percent of precincts reporting. Having clinched the primary win, early polling suggests Sasse will be the likely victor in the general election in November. At 42 years old, Sasse is poised to become the youngest GOP senator.
First profiled in THE WEEKLY STANDARD 11 months ago, the former Bush administration official and current president of Midland University surprised many observers with his rapid political ascent. Sasse started the race at just 3 percent name recognition in the state and ran a nearly textbook campaign, deftly avoiding gaffes and out-fundraising his two main competitors: former Nebraska treasurer Shane Osborn and Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale. (It helped that Dinsdale's momentum came late and Osborn's campaign was plagued by scandal.) As a former assistant secretary of health and human services, Sasse capitalized on his unrivaled health policy expertise by making opposition to Obamacare the major theme of his campaign. Traveling around the state in an RV, Sasse appeared at town halls standing next to a massive nine-and-a-half foot printout of all the pages of the Obamcare legislation.
The Nebraska Senate race and Sasse's role in it, however, has not been without controversy. Many national observers have been keeping a close eye on the race as a proxy war between the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. Sasse was backed early on by the Senate Conservatives Fund, a Tea Party group that was also backing a primary challenge to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. As a result, McConnell vowed to "crush" Senate Conservative Fund candidates in the pages of the New York Times. And though the National Republican Senatorial Committee remained officially neutral, it was an open secret that McConnell associates were helping Osborn behind the scenes. (For more background on tension between the Tea Party and establishment in Nebraska, see, "A Big Fight Over Small Differences," from the March 24 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.)
Now many are wondering to what extent Sasse will embrace the national GOP after declaring victory in the primary. In the closing weeks of the Nebraska primary, McConnell denied having anything to do with an out of state PAC that was running extremely negative ads against Sasse after it emerged that the PAC was started by the Kentucky senator's former campaign manager. By this morning, with voting in Nebraska underway, GOP establishment figures seemed to be changing their tune about Sasse and were suddenly suggesting that any perceived hostility toward Sasse's candidacy was unfair. They were also gleeful that Sasse had said on MSNBC this morning that he would support McConnell as majority leader:
“I’m for better conservative ideas and more winsome persuasion,” Mr. Sasse said on MSNBC when asked if he would support Mr. McConnell for leader should he win election to the Senate. “I’m a team player and looking forward to supporting whoever our leader is.”
Though this is being portrayed by some as a stinging rebuke to the Tea Party groups that are backing Sasse and publicly opposed to McConnell, Sasse himself has remained pretty consistent about his posture toward McConnell. This is how National Review Online reported on the tension between the two men last fall: