Nebraska Senate primary: Tea party gets its win, but not a flame-thrower

Ben Sasse, winner of the GOP Senate primary in Nebraska, has heavyweight backing from tea party groups – and he gives the insurgent wing an important victory. But he talks more like a uniter than a member of a rebel cause.

Republican Senate hopeful Ben Sasse speaks in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, May 13, 2014, after winning his party's primary election.

Ben Sasse, poised to become the next senator from Nebraska, boasted a long list of national tea party supporters in his Republican primary win Tuesday. 

For starters, the young university president and former Bush administration official had Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Tea Party Patriots working on his behalf. But already, Mr. Sasse is sounding more like a uniter than a divider within the fractious Republican Party.

At the end of a nasty primary battle, in which Sasse had run afoul of the most powerful Republican in the Senate – Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, avatar of the Republican establishment – the Nebraskan pledged to work with him.

But to the national tea party groups, that may not matter. They have avoided the possibility of a primary season without a major victory – important, if nothing else, to future fundraising. Sasse won 49 percent of the vote.

Banker Sid Dinsdale, who surged late, fell far short with just 22 percent. Former state treasurer, Shane Osborn, whose campaign was hobbled by mistakes, got 21 percent. Sasse is expected to breeze to victory in November, succeeding retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R).

“On Wednesday, the tea party groups will jump up and down,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “They got their guy. But the good thing for Republicans is that Sasse wants to be a serious conservative and a problem-solver.”

As voting was under way Tuesday, Sasse went on national television and called himself a “team player,” pledging that “absolutely” he would back Senator McConnell for leader if he wins reelection.

“I’m for better conservative ideas and more winsome persuasion,” Mr. Sasse said on MSNBC. “I’m a team player and looking forward to supporting whoever our leader is.”

When asked to state explicitly whether that meant he would back McConnell, Sasse said, “Absolutely.

McConnell is embroiled in a competitive reelection fight in Kentucky. His tea party primary challenger has faded, but he faces a serious Democratic opponent in November. If McConnell wins, he is poised to become Senate majority leader if Republicans make a net gain of six seats.

Since the Nebraska seat that’s up for election this cycle is already in Republican hands, and expected to stay there, the primary was effectively seen as the election. To the national Republican “establishment” – party leaders and committees – any of the GOP field’s top three candidates in Nebraska was acceptable.

In January, conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote that Sasse was caught on YouTube last year demanding that “every Republican in Washington, starting with Mitch McConnell, show some actual leadership.” That now seems to be water under the bridge.

Sasse wasn’t endorsed just by tea partyers. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee chair, also endorsed Sasse.

Further blurring the distinction between tea party and establishment in Nebraska was the fact that many local tea party activists backed Mr. Osborn, and resented what they called meddling by outside groups. Most egregious, in their eyes, was Washington-based FreedomWorks' decision in March to switch its support from Osborn to Sasse.

Osborn was initially seen as the frontrunner for the nomination. Not only had he already won statewide office, but he was also a decorated Navy pilot who made headlines in 2001 when he was detained on Hainan Island in China for 12 days after making an emergency landing.

During the primary, Osborn took a serious blow after his campaign released an official-looking Navy memo about the incident that turned out to have been written by a Navy friend working at the Pentagon. Osborn acknowledged the mistake.

Some Nebraska tea partyers criticized Sasse as a Washington insider, including service as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration and support for the addition of a prescription-drug program to Medicare. In December 2009, Sasse wrote an oped supporting the program, but when the Washington Post dug up that piece last November, Sasse’s campaign said he didn’t support the drug program.

Sasse, in his early 40s, is now president of Midland University in Fremont, Neb., and has degrees from Harvard, Yale, and St. John’s College in Maryland.

In other primary action, Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts narrowly won the six-way GOP primary to replace Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R), and is expected to win in November. Mr. Ricketts is the son of billionaire GOP donor Joe Ricketts.

The only other state holding primaries Tuesday was West Virginia. Both parties’ expected nominees to replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) won their primaries: Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D). Thus, the state is poised to elect its first woman senator in November. Representative Capito is considered the favorite in increasingly red West Virginia.

In the race to replace Capito in the state’s Second Congressional District, Republicans nominated the tea party-backed candidate, Alex Mooney, former chairman of the Republican Party in neighboring Maryland. Nick Casey, former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, won his party’s primary. The November contest should favor the Republican, but the divisive GOP primary gives the Democrat a bit of an opening.

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