Ben Sasse easily won the GOP senate primary in Nebraska (a safe GOP seat that will make no difference in control of the Senate), teaching the far right a lesson: If it supports a candidate with a PhD from Yale, experience in multiple jobs in the George W. Bush administration and the support of mainstream GOP officials including Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) as well as right-wing activists and groups, then “its” candidate can win in a deep-red state. And if he is super-strong on national security — decrying the Obama administration’s weakness on foreign policy — and refuses to take an extreme anti-immigration reform stance — he really might be something special. (His Web site features this explanation of his foreign policy views: “Under the Obama Administration, America’s global standing has deteriorated to dangerous levels. Our adversaries don’t fear us and our friends don’t trust us. Russia’s attack on Ukraine shows the folly of President Obama’s naive, liberal worldview that international aggression is out of date. Dictatorships like China and North Korea have become emboldened by Obama’s lead-from-behind weakness. His passivity on Syria has led to a dramatic increase in the number of jihadist terrorists, and on his watch Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than ever before. Restoring America’s credibility means strengthening our alliances, deterring our enemies, and leading the world from the front.”)
The race became increasingly negative. However, the most interesting part of the race happened after it was over. Sasse’s campaign put out a strikingly candid memo after the election was called, explaining:
[Sasse] can articulate the problems of America from a Constitutional perspective as well as anyone in the country. He understands policy better than most professional policy wonks. He is positioned on day one to be to ObamaCare in the Senate what Paul Ryan has been to budget issues in the House. Ben has shown the discipline to avoid controversial statements and silly mistakes.
Conservatives will be thrilled with Ben Sasse as a US Senator if they are looking for a leader who will propose and fight for conservative solutions from a constitutional perspective, but they shouldn’t expect him to adopt an instinctual reaction of ‘no’; nor should they expect that he will go out of his way to annoy establishment GOP leaders. There are certainly times he will take them on as Senator Coburn did a decade ago over earmarks, but he will also choose his battles carefully.
Who Is Ben Sasse? The best comparison is to Jack Kemp. 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.
We’ve argued that the label “tea party” and “establishment” have become somewhat meaningless, and Sasse and his campaign team seem to concur. The best candidates are ones who appeal to all segments of the party, not simply the far right, and who have impressive credentials and/or relevant experience. Sasse was endorsed by Club for Growth and the state Farm Bureau, by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). As Matt Lewis put it, “Sasse may be a solid conservative, but he’s also a serious problem solver. These things are not mutually exclusive. As such, my guess is that Sasse will be more pragmatic than some of his conservative fans today might expect, which is not a bad thing; Ronald Reagan was also quite pragmatic.” Indeed, at the end of the race, he said he would “absolutely” support Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as GOP leader.
Interestingly, two endorsements on his Web site play up his problem-solving, not his ideology. One says, “Ben has a unique skill set and a proven record of fixing things that are broken, bringing people together and solving problems.” Another declares, “I support Ben Sasse because he is a conservative Nebraska native who believes that our future depends on working to find solutions, not just standing on political posturing.”
This may therefore be a useful example of how to unite the party — welcome all supporters, concentrate on problem-solving, don’t drink the anti-immigration poison, stay strong on defense and show you know what you are talking about. You can call yourself an “outsider,” but it sure helps if you know your way around public policy and Beltway bureaucracy. There is one more interesting note: Cruz stayed out of North Carolina and endorsed Sasse in Nebraska. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) backed the flaky loser in North Carolina and steered clear of Nebraska. That would make it Cruz 2, Rand Paul 0.
The outcome of this race won’t figure in the control of the Senate, nor would a different result have been a “victory” for the “establishment.” In most cases Sasse won’t vote differently than either of his opponents would have. This was a race that, for better or worse, is unique — made more so by an after-election confession that the tea party vs. establishment stuff is a bunch of hooey.
The winners: GOP unity, Jack Kemp’s legacy, hawkish foreign policy, the collective IQ of the Senate, problem-solving.
The losers: Picking fights just to pick fights, running as the extremist on ideology, isolationism, anti-immigration reform fervor.