WASHINGTON — Signs indicate Ben Sasse is making plans to run for a second term as U.S. senator.
The Nebraska Republican previously said he would decide his political future this summer after a discussion with his wife, Melissa, and their children.
The lack of an announcement to date has generated speculation about Sasse’s intentions, but his fundraising and other efforts say he’s in.
“He is making moves on the ground with staff that suggest that he’ll run for reelection,” said Jessica Flanagain, senior vice president of the political consulting company Axiom Strategies.
Flanagain has worked on many past Nebraska Republican campaigns and managed Gov. Pete Ricketts’ successful 2018 reelection bid.
Tyler Grassmeyer, who managed Sasse’s 2014 campaign, said Sasse is approaching $3 million in campaign funds.
In addition, Sasse has been supporting candidates in races across the state through his political action committee.
A few Democrats have indicated that they’ll seek the Senate seat in 2020, including a couple of Omahans — businessman Chris Janicek and Angie Phillips, who has worked as a mental health advocate.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said she expects the party’s nominee to highlight Sasse’s rhetoric from his first campaign about the need to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — and the subsequent lack of comprehensive Republican action on the issue. Kleeb also suggested that Democrats will aim to capitalize on frustrations among those in farm country suffering the financial pinch of ongoing trade disputes.
She said the party’s nominee will be able to connect with rural Nebraskans as well as capitalize on left-leaning voters in the state’s urban areas.
For the record, Sasse has sharply criticized the administration’s trade policies.
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One looming question is whether Sasse will face a primary challenger and to what extent President Donald Trump could influence the contest.
Talk of a fellow Republican jumping into the race has waxed and waned over time with the biggest potential name, Gov. Pete Ricketts, saying he’s not interested in the job.
One Republican who has been eyeing the race is businessman Matt Innis, who told The World-Herald to expect a decision soon.
“I’m very interested in it,” Innis said.
A former chair of the Lancaster County Republican Party, Innis said he lives about 15 miles southwest of Lincoln. Innis has gone after Sasse for criticizing Donald Trump during and after the 2016 presidential race.
Any primary challenger will face an uphill battle, and the contest would probably focus less on policy positions — Sasse has a conservative voting record, after all — and more on personality.
A Republican challenger could play on feelings among the state’s die-hard Trump fans who don’t like seeing Sasse criticize the president.
While Sasse has robust approval ratings among Nebraska Republicans, some polling shows that Trump’s approval levels among the state’s party faithful are even higher.
And Sasse’s critiques of Trump have drawn the ire of talk show hosts from Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh who might devote air time to boosting a GOP challenger.
Still, Sasse would start with all of the advantages of incumbency, a massive fundraising edge and an established campaign infrastructure.
And he’ll have allies. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has indicated that it will help any incumbent Republican senator, including Sasse, in fending off primary challengers.
And groups such as the Club for Growth — which already endorsed Sasse earlier this year — could be expected to come to his defense.
But the X factor would be Trump himself, who could decide to throw his weight behind a primary opponent.
In a written statement, Grassmeyer touted Sasse’s high approval ratings among Nebraska Republicans, his statewide operation and that campaign war chest approaching $3 million.
“Ben and Melissa are very close to making their announcement, and he’s in great shape,” Grassmeyer said.
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