What Ben Sasse's Win in the Nebraska Republican Primary Means

Rather than yet another Tea Party-versus-establishment battle, the contest elevated a conservative candidate, Ben Sasse, who convinced insiders and outsiders alike.
Republican Ben Sasse is likely to become the next U.S. senator from Nebraska. (Associated Press)

The Dynamic. If you have read anything about politics in the past year, you're familiar with The Dynamic—the overriding national theme that explains what's going on in all the Republican primaries currently being held across the country. The Dynamic pits the embattled GOP establishment against those troublemakers in the Tea Party trying to take them out. It's the convenient frame for every state-level contest, with each individual race, regardless of particulars, becoming an encapsulation of where the battle stands.

But not every election can be boiled down in quite this way. On Tuesday, a Senate primary was held in Nebraska, and it wasn't clear how The Dynamic applied. There were two leading candidates: Shane Osborn, the state treasurer, and Ben Sasse (pronounced "sass," not "sassy"), a former Bush administration official—he served as assistant secretary in the Health and Human Services Department—Harvard grad, and university president.

Pundits spent months trying to determine which was the "Tea Party" candidate and which the "establishment" pick. FreedomWorks, the Glenn Beck-backed libertarian organ, first backed Osborn and attacked Sasse for being soft on Obamacare, then suddenly switched to favor Sasse. As Sasse's momentum built, he earned endorsements from Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund. Doubts were raised about the military record of Osborn, who came under fire for forging a memo defending his service as a Navy pilot. Sasse went on an "Obamacare tour" across the state, lecturing on the healthcare law's failings in detail for hours at a time.

On Tuesday night, Sasse ran away with the primary, taking 49 percent of the GOP vote and more than doubling his nearest competitor. This makes him the likely next senator from Nebraska, a red state where Sasse is not expected to face serious Democratic opposition in November. Statements immediately poured forth declaring his win a victory for the Tea Party, which has seemed benighted in recent months. "For the past week the mainstream media has been pushing the recycled ‘Tea Party is Dead’ headlines, but tonight’s results show how again they’ve got it wrong," Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express, said after the race was called for Sasse late Tuesday.

But Sasse actually represents less the Tea Party's anti-incumbent rage than the sort of fusion candidate who can unite the party establishment and base—a well-credentialed insider who can convince the right wing he's on their side. As Dave Weigel put it in Slate, "Sasse is a veteran of the establishment who masterfully ingratiated himself with the conservative movement." Particularly in red states, he could represent the harmonizing future of the GOP in a post-GOP-civil-war world. Last week, Thom Tillis won the North Carolina Republican primary more by straddling the establishment and Tea Party than by taking sides; Sasse did so even more effectively. 

Sasse's campaign argues that his win illustrates a larger point about the past few years' intraparty conflict: The best candidates—Tea Party and establishment alike—have generally won, while the rank incompetents have lost. In a memo on Sasse's victory, his campaign advisers John Yob and Jordan Gehrke wrote:

In the last two cycles, we saw what happened when anti-establishment candidates with questionable backgrounds or poor campaign skills were nominated in several states. In 2012, other states showed what happened when the establishment worked to manipulate the system to put forward equally flawed candidates who also fared poorly in General Elections in 2012.

It's not fair to blame the Tea Party for costing Republicans the Senate, according to this argument, when "electable" establishment candidates have also blown plenty of Senate races in the past couple of election cycles. The GOP civil-war narrative, Yob and Gehrke write, was "relevant yet overplayed" in Nebraska.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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