The Washington Post

Tea-party-backed Ben Sasse wins Nebraska primary for U.S. Senate

Republican Ben Sasse comfortably won his party's nomination for U.S. Senate in Nebraska Tuesday, handing the national tea party groups that backed him a much-needed victory headed into the heart of a congressional primary season offering few opportunities for success.


Ben Sasse, left, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Sharon Lee and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, stand together at an April 25 rally. (Job Vigil, The Telegraph/AP)

A week ahead of U.S. Senate nominating contests in Kentucky and Georgia, where tea party candidates have fizzled, and a U.S. House primary in Idaho where the tea party challenger may lose, national conservative groups were nervously eyeing Nebraska, where they deployed substantial resources to support Sasse.

"Ben Sasse’s victory in the Nebraska Senate Republican primary shows the strength of the conservative movement. All three candidates ran as conservatives -- as GOP candidates are doing everywhere -- but Nebraskans weren't fooled," said conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III.

Sasse's win was a boon to the parade of conservative groups and figures who rallied to his side. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) campaigned for Sasse alongside former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The anti-tax Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund each spent at least hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting Sasse, the president of Midland University.

Sasse blunted a mini-surge from wealthy bank executive Sid Dinsdale, who appeared to emerge as a threat during the final week of the campaign amid a nasty advertising battle pitting Sasse and his allies against former state treasurer Shane Osborn, the candidate most closely aligned with the GOP establishment.

With all precincts reporting, Sasse defeated Dinsdale 49 percent to 22 percent, with Osborn running  third with 21 percent of the vote. Sasse will be a heavy favorite in the general election considering Nebraska’s strong conservative tilt.

GOP attention now shifts to next Tuesday, a day that has long been circled on Republican calendars because of the number of contested primaries being held. Tea party candidates face an uphill climb that day.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is the front-runner over conservative businessman Matt Bevin. Bevin's campaign has failed to gain much steam amid distracting setbacks like his attendance at a pro-cockfighting rally.

In Georgia, Rep. Jack Kingston, a powerful appropriator who has earned the ire of conservatives, appears to be near the head of a pack alongside businessman David Perdue in a Senate primary most close watcher believe is headed to a runoff. Tea party favorites like Rep. Paul Broun, meanwhile, are running well behind.

In Idaho's 2nd congressional district, the business wing of the GOP is battling the tea party in a fight that pits Rep. Mike Simpson against attorney Bryan Smith. Simpson is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Smith is backed by the Club for Growth. ​

In some ways, Sasse is an unlikely bet to be championed by tea party groups that came to his defense. He previously spoke highly of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, which the Club for Growth opposes. He told MSNBC he'd be comfortable supporting McConnell as the Senate GOP leader. The Senate Conservatives Fund backs Bevin's bid to unseat McConnell. Osborn attacked Sasse from the right on health-care during the race, airing ads accusing him of not opposing the federal health-care law forcefully enough.

An afterthought for much of the Nebraska campaign, Dinsdale, the president of Pinnacle Bancorp, Inc., loaned his campaign at least $1 million, which enabled him to hit the television airwaves hard during the stretch run of the race. Sasse's allies started ramping up their attacks against him during the final week.

The Club for Growth hit the airwaves with an attack ad casting Dinsdale as too liberal. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, also a Sasse champion, wrote a piece highlighting Dinsdale's relatives' ties to groups that support abortion rights, an effort to weaken him in the eyes of conservative voters.

West Virginia also held its primaries Tuesday. In the Senate race, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) advanced to a general election showdown as expected. Whoever wins the general election will make history as West Virginia’s first female senator. In the race for Capito's GOP-leaning district, tea party-backed candidate Alex Mooney won the GOP nomination and will face Democrat Nick Casey.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, with 12 points over Ben Carson.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 18%
Quoted
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

post-politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.