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.
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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.

Now that he's virtually guaranteed to be a senator, what kind of senator will Sasse be? Despite his support from the likes of Palin and Cruz, he's sending signals he doesn't plan to be a bomb-thrower in Washington. On Tuesday, in an interview with MSNBC's Chuck Todd, Sasse called himself a "team player" who would seek consensus around the best conservative ideas through persuasion. During the campaign, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was behind an anti-Sasse advertising effort—apparently a part of McConnell's war on the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is supporting the leader's own long-shot primary challenger. But Sasse now says that's water under the bridge and he looks forward to working with McConnell.

In his speech accepting the nomination Tuesday night, Sasse cited as his role model Jack Kemp, the late congressman and onetime vice-presidential nominee revered in conservative circles for his free-market wonkishness. Paraphrasing Kemp, he declared, "The only way to oppose bad ideas is to replace them with good ideas.” In their memo, Gehrke and Yob elaborate on this theme:

Jack Kemp provided real ideas and real solutions to real problems. Ben Sasse is one of the few leaders who has proposed a detailed alternative to ObamaCare, and will likely propose additional detailed policy proposals over the course of the General Election and as a United States Senator .... In addition to proposing real policy solutions, Ben will also be in the Kemp mold of working to inspire the Republican Party and constitutional conservatives to better articulate our message of empowerment and opportunity for all Americans.

This all sounds good in theory. The question is whether the Tea Party will let Sasse get away with it in practice. There's another Republican in Washington who came to fame as a Jack Kemp-worshipping GOP wonk. Like Kemp, he sought to put substantive policy behind his party's economic slogans. Like Kemp, he's trying to take the party's message to nontraditional audiences. Like Kemp, he strongly believes in immigration reform. His name is Paul Ryan—onetime Mitt Romney running mate, striker of bipartisan budget deals—and he's now viewed as a card-carrying member of the Republican establishment. Another former standard-bearer for the conservative insurgents, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is currently fending off a challenge on his right flank.

At some point, Sasse will have to make choices about whether to side with the McConnell or the Cruz wing in the Senate, which have been at odds over issues from trying to defund Obamacare to the debt ceiling. He'll have to cast votes on things like the farm bill, which the Club for Growth opposes but another of Sasse's powerful endorsers, the Nebraska Farm Bureau, supports. It will not be possible to please all the people all the time. The Republican civil war may be cooling, but it will only truly end when both sides lay down their arms.

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

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