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:
On Tuesday, November 12, Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse walked into Mitch McConnell’s office to clear the air. Contrary to the rumors, Sasse wanted to say, he hadn’t secretly vowed to oppose McConnell’s leadership if elected. In fact, he hadn’t been asked to make such a pledge and would never have even considered it. That was the plan, anyway. As soon as Sasse sat down, McConnell lit into him, criticizing him for working with the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) as well as for posting a viral YouTube video in which he demanded “every Republican in Washington, starting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to show some actual leadership.”
None of the major players feuding in the Nebraska Senate race are entirely covered in glory here. It was exceedlingly petty for elements of the national GOP to jump into an open Senate primary and oppose an eminently qualified candidate such as Sasse. And while Tea Party groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund look prescient for championing Sasse -- this might be their only major victory, given that some of the other Senate primary candidates they are championing, such as Matt Bevin in Kentucky and Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, are currently making lackluster showings in the polls.
Ultimately, Sasse the candidate doesn't neatly fit into the Tea Party vs. establishment narrative. Sasse is unlikely to turn his back on his conservative ideals and he's known to be close with Tea Party senator Mike Lee and was also endorsed by Senator Ted Cruz, who's rankled McConnell in the past. But it's also true that, temperamentally and vocationally, all evidence points to the fact that Sasse is more of a problem solver than a firebrand. In fact, Sasse campaign advisors Jordan Gehrke and John Yob issued a memo following his victory tonight emphasizing this:
Conservatives will be thrilled with Ben Sasse as a US Senator if they are looking for a leader who will propose and fight for conservative solutions from a constitutional perspective, but they shouldn’t expect him to adopt an instinctual reaction of ‘no’; nor should they expect that he will go out of his way to annoy establishment GOP leaders. There are certainly times he will take them on as Senator Coburn did a decade ago over earmarks, but he will also choose his battles carefully.
Despite the not-unfounded narrative that the Republican establishment was out to get him, Sasse could prove indispensable to the national GOP from the moment he likely arrives in the Senate next year. His campaign has shown him to be an exceptionally disciplined and effective messenger -- Sasse is likely to prove adept at articulating and advancing Tea Party positions without being needlessly confrontational or controversial. And his unparalled knowledge of health care policy means he's going to arrive in the Senate and hit the ground running.
After enduring a bruising primary and triumphing in an election year when GOP groups have spent three times as much money attacking fellow Republicans as Democrats, it would be no small irony if Sasse ended up being the candidate who helps unite Republicans.
— Jeff Zeleny (@jeffzeleny) May 14, 2014