Sasse Surged to Victory after Anti-Establishment Coalesced around Him
Nebraska GOP Senate nominee Ben Sasse may not see himself as an establishment slayer, but Nebraska's primary voters may have given him a dominating 27-point victory on Tuesday to send a message to the Washington Republican establishment.
At the beginning of the year, Shane Osborn's internal polling still showed him with 39 percent of the vote, while Sasse and Sid Dinsdale had 7 percent each. Sasse's internal polling had him trailing by as much as 37 points last year. By February, however, the race was a dead heat, according to a poll by Harper Polling. Sasse closed the gap and surged to the nomination on Tuesday because he was backed by politicians and anti-establishment groups that gave him the good housekeeping seal of approval as the candidate who would be the least-aligned with the Washington establishment. When former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed him in March, which was followed by endorsements from Obamacare opponents Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), Sasse's campaign gained even more momentum and started pulling away in the race.
Sasse introduced himself to Nebraskans and the nation last year with a video the Drudge Report made viral that was as much about his opposition to Obamacare as it was a denunciation of Washington's Republican establishment and the permanent political class that did not fight staunchly enough to defund the law.
Soon after, he told Breitbart News he wanted to move the nation's capital to Nebraska, and he was hailed as the "Obamacare Nemesis" on the cover of National Review. The Senate Conservatives Fund then backed his candidacy, which did not sit well with Sen. Mitch McConnell, who had a rocky and tense meeting later in D.C. with Sasse, and then promptly viewed him as potential "collateral damage" in his feud with the Senate Conservatives Fund, which had also backed McConnell's primary challenger Matt Bevin.
Based on campaign finance records, it was clear which side conservatives and the D.C. establishment were on in the race. As the Washington Examiner observed, conservative groups backed Sasse, and "perhaps for that reason, K Street and the GOP establishment are bankrolling Osborn." On March 28, two weeks after Palin's endorsement, FreedomWorks, perhaps also sensing the momentum was now about to permanently shift to Sasse, switched its support from Osborn to Sasse because the group determined that it was "clear that Shane Osborn formed allegiances with Mitch McConnell and the K Street lobbying class." That did not stop a super PAC run by McConnell allies from pouring in over $100,000 worth of negative and deceptive ads against Sasse on behalf of Osborn.
As Breitbart News reported, Osborn's campaign also hit a bump in the road when it was discovered to have "used his connections to generate an 'official'-looking memorandum from the U.S. Navy praising his military exploits" during an incident that Osborn knew may cause him trouble down the line. The Department of Defense, though, could not verify the memo, which "claimed Osborn performed well during an operation in China in which he crash-landed a plane that had been shot onto Chinese territory." Osborn also may not have endeared himself to Nebraska voters after, as Breitbart News reported, he received the support of Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who are loathed by the conservative grassroots.
Cruz, Lee, and Palin campaigned for Sasse, and conservative outside groups like Citizens United, the Club for Growth, and the Madison Project defended him on the airwaves in Nebraska from specious attacks, while letting Nebraskans know about "counterfeit conservative" Sid Dinsdale's record. Dinsdale, who started moving up in the polls as Osborne and Sasse battled each other on the airwaves, had donated to Democrats, said he would always raise the debt, declared that pro-life issues were not worth fighting for as much as other issues, and reportedly had a sister on the board of Planned Parenthood.
Still, mainstream media outlets reported that Dinsdale had a chance of replicating what Deb Fischer did in 2012 when she bested Jon Bruning and Don Stenberg in a three-way race for the state's GOP Senate nomination en route to the Senate as the two frontrunners pummeled the other. Dinsdale was never going to be Fischer, however, despite the spate of false comparisons.
Besides his gender, Dinsdale differed from Fischer in one very substantial way: he did not have the support of Palin, who powered Fisher to the win with a 135-word Facebook post in a race that featured the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks backing Stenberg with millions, while the GOP establishment heavily supported Bruning.
The weekend before election night, Breitbart News reported that a Magellan Strategies survey found Sasse with a commanding 14-point lead, which actually underestimated his 27-point victory over his opponents that saw Sasse carry 92 of 93 counties. Sasse, who holds a commanding lead over his Democrat opponent, is nearly a shoo-in to get to Congress, where he will have to decide next year how much he will "dance with the one that brung ya."