U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse spent years positioning himself as the next big brain of the conservative movement, in speeches from the Senate floor and in interviews with national media outlets.
The former college president spoke like the confident smart kid in class. People listened to “the senator from National Review,” a high-brow conservative magazine that featured him often.
Then President Donald Trump took over the Republican Party. And Sasse, who had criticized candidate Trump, lost luster as a conservative media darling and briefly became a target of the White House.
Sasse had vented about Trump and the changing GOP to cable networks that the president paints as “fake news.” Republicans back home noticed, and some let Sasse know they were displeased.
On May 12, Sasse faces Nebraska’s Republican voters for the first time since telling CNN’s Jake Tapper in 2018 that he thought “every morning” about leaving the GOP and registering as an independent.
His Senate primary is the biggest draw on a thin May 2020 federal ballot for Nebraska’s Republican voters. The first vote-by-mail ballots arrive this week, and people will start returning them.
Race handicappers, polls, fundraising and conventional wisdom indicate that most Nebraska GOP primary voters, including rural North Platte farmer Peggy Orr, remain in Sasse’s camp.
Nearly two-thirds of the 400 likely Nebraska Republican primary voters surveyed with landline phone calls in mid-February backed Sasse, according to a poll released publicly by We Ask America.
Many forgive Sasse’s early concerns about the president as an independent streak that Nebraskans like in their senators, she said, “as long as they don’t go too far.” She recently volunteered to help his campaign.
Still, more than a few say they look forward to sending Sasse a message, as a protest vote or something more.
Carol Friesen, chairwoman of the Lincoln County Republican Party, is one of them. She saw Sasse say he viewed himself as “an independent conservative who caucuses with the Republicans.”
She and others remember Sasse saying he refused to vote for Trump in 2016. They’ve shared on social media news stories in which Sasse has sidestepped the question of whether he’d vote for Trump in 2020.
They haven’t forgotten that Sasse called then-candidate Trump a “megalomaniac strongman,” that he criticized the president’s travel ban on predominately Muslim countries and that he called his tariffs “dumb.”
People such as Friesen disagree with the decision by Trump and the state party in September not to recruit or fund a big-name primary opponent for Sasse, so they are lining up behind another option.
Sasse drew one challenger: Matt Innis, a Trump-defending, underfunded former chairman of the Lancaster County Republican Party in Lincoln, who owns his own lighting and cabling business.
Before the Nebraska Republican Party and coronavirus concerns stopped such efforts, a handful of county Republican parties lined up behind Innis, including Lincoln and Scotts Bluff Counties.
“The state (party) discourages the action we took because it shows disunity in the Republican Party,” Friesen said. “The way we looked at it was the disunity and division came from Senator Sasse.”
Sasse declined several requests to be interviewed about his primary race. His campaign manager said he is focused on coronavirus response and doing his job, and not on politics.
“Our campaign team is making sure that, when the time is right, he’ll be able to return to campaigning,” said Taylor Sliva, his campaign manager. “Our campaign is built to win no matter what.”
Even so, Sasse’s team is taking his reelection bid seriously, spending money on mailers, television and radio ads and digital outreach.
The campaign stood by as the Douglas County Republican Party filed a complaint against Innis for buying hundreds of dollars in digital advertising without filing the required federal form.
Sasse backers point to a Sept. 10 tweet from Trump to show why they believe the lane has closed for a Republican to run as Innis is trying, as a candidate more loyal to the president and his party.
That’s when Trump surprised political observers with a “Complete and Total Endorsement” of Sasse. The president had previously tweeted and told others that Nebraska could “do much better” than Sasse.
“Senator Ben Sasse has done a wonderful job representing the people of Nebraska,” Trump tweeted. “He is great with our Vets, the Military, and your very important Second Amendment.”
But Trump’s political team got closer than many know to picking and backing a major primary challenger to Sasse, Republicans with knowledge of those deliberations told The World-Herald privately.
At least one potential challenger, an elected official, made the trek to Washington to gauge interest in a potential run, they said. He did not run. Others, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, were the subject of much speculation about possible runs.
“As President Donald Trump has said, Senator Ben Sasse is doing a great job for Nebraska, and we look forward to working with him when he is re-elected,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Trump campaign.
Gorka did not address whether Trump or his team considered recruiting a challenger.
Sasse and his defenders have said the senator, with phone calls and conversations with the president and White House staff, rebuilt bridges with Trump. He started warning the president’s team when he was going to disagree publicly with the administration, and he did so less often.
It also probably became clear to potential challengers and the White House that beating Sasse would cost too much money, said Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Republicans are defending 23 Senate seats in 2020. Democrats are defending 12. Red-leaning Nebraska is not a place where GOP donors want to spend money when trying to hold on to the Senate, Adkins said.
“That tells me they are being strategic and not sincere,” Adkins said of Trump’s endorsement.
A crowded field of seven Democrats will be on the May ballot, seeking to challenge either Sasse or Innis in the general election. All are relatively unknown, with no clear frontrunner among them. Republicans don’t see a serious fall challenge among the Democratic contenders.
Innis said Nebraskans are tired of hearing soaring speeches from Sasse. He tells people to look at who Sasse alienates, how few allies Sasse finds for his legislative efforts and how little he gets done.
Innis said Nebraska conservatives have whiplash from what Sasse did last month, voting against the first coronavirus stimulus package and criticizing it as money being “shoveled out of a helicopter.”
Then Sasse held up the second stimulus package for an amendment limiting unemployment benefits to no more than laid off people earned, even though he lacked the votes, and voted for the stimulus package anyway.
On Monday, Sasse said he planned to propose help in the next stimulus package for rural hospitals during the pandemic, including making sure critical access hospitals retain their eligibility for federal funds and reserving some aid for them.
“His entire time in Washington, D.C., has been about furthering his career and his status,” Innis said. “The only accomplishment he has is he’s made millions of dollars and written two books.”
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said Sasse can’t build coalitions, so he takes “principled stands” against things he knows will pass anyway to please his political masters, including Club for Growth, a key donor.
“The truth is he has no principles other than the preservation of Ben Sasse,” she said.
The Center for Effective Lawmaking, run by the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University, ranked Sasse’s effectiveness as a legislator 51st out of 54 Republicans in the Senate, behind Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Ted Cruz of Texas, for example.
The same tool rated Nebraska’s Sen. Deb Fischer 30th, Iowa’s Sen. Joni Ernst 38th and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley first. Shown the ranking, Sasse’s campaign said there’s much more to Senate service than passing laws.
Sasse’s campaign said his Senate priorities include his work on the Judiciary Committee and confirming Trump-appointed conservatives to the Supreme Court, appeals courts and local district courts.
Much of Sasse’s work on the Intelligence Committee is classified and centers on China, staff said, which is why he engages publicly when he can on China, cyberattacks and threats.
The campaign says Sasse fights for expanded trade on the Finance Committee and worked against environmental regulations that threatened farms and ranches, though he left the Agriculture Committee in 2017 to pursue other assignments, leaving Nebraska without a member on the Senate ag panel for the first time in decades. Fischer later added the Agriculture Committee to her workload.
Sasse also led the charge, thus far filibustered, on the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which several in Nebraska’s anti-abortion community appreciated, including Julie Schmit-Albin.
Schmit-Albin’s group, Nebraska Right to Life, is one of many, including the Nebraska Farm Bureau, that have lined up behind Sasse’s reelection bid. Many, including her, tout his work behind the scenes.
Before coronavirus curbed door-knocking, Sasse had campaigned in 86 of Nebraska’s 93 counties since mid-August, staff said. They’re now shifting to the “best data and digital tools in the state,” Sliva said.
Innis said the Sasse camp must be counting where his campaign bus stopped for gas, with or without him on it, because other Nebraskans, including elected leaders, tell him they rarely see Sasse.
“He’s been in Washington most of his adult life,” Innis said. “All his spare time has been spent in Washington, D.C., raising money. His family is there with him a lot of the time.”
Sasse’s campaign says such allegations are false, that Sasse was campaigning in all three of Nebraska’s congressional districts in March, with his son, and that he spends most weekends in the state.
“He can’t live off the campaign bus mid-weeks while the Senate is in session,” Sliva said. “But even so, he’s slept on the bus in the 3rd District many weekend nights.”
Innis says Nebraska voters are smart enough to see past Sasse’s fancy talk, particularly ranchers still mad about Sasse’s vote to take country-of-origin labeling off meat.
He says they deserve a representative who will stand more reliably with Trump and the Republican Party. Sasse’s team says Nebraskans already have a reliable conservative.
Sasse has voted with Trump in the Senate 86.4% of the time, according to an analysis of Senate votes by FiveThirtyEight.com, the political and statistical site run by Nate Silver.
That’s similar to the level of support that former Sen. Chuck Hagel offered President George W. Bush, based on World-Herald archives. Those two often feuded.