‘I don’t understand what motivates Chris Christie.”
That’s one of Senator Ben Sasse’s softer statements during our conversation Wednesday morning. We’re talking about the New Jersey governor’s recent endorsement of Donald Trump. After multiple media appearances this week following his declaration that he would not vote for Trump under any circumstance, Sasse can lambast the Republican front-runner on autopilot. But when reflecting on Trump’s latest string of high-profile surrogates, he struggles for the right words.
Beginning with a series of tweets in January questioning Trump for boasting about his marital infidelities, his support for single-payer healthcare, and his Second Amendment views, Sasse emerged early on as a vocal anti-Trump force. Now, through an open letter via Facebook, he’s pledging to oppose Trump no matter what, and is urging conservatives to unite around a third-party alternative should he clinch the nomination.
That Sasse — the wonky, conservative freshman from Nebraska — has joined the so-called #NeverTrump movement is not all that striking. What is striking is that he’s the only sitting senator to have done so, his voice echoing in a chamber empty of Republicans who will openly stand beside him. Sasse has grappled with that fact in recent days, especially as Christie and colleagues such as Alabama senator Jeff Sessions — Sasse says he still “like[s]” and “respect[s]” Sessions — join the Trump train. But in an arena where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan refuse to breathe the front-runner’s name, Sasse is launching his own offensive.
On Morning Joe on Tuesday, Sasse told Joe Scarborough that if Trump and his brand of identity politics become the party’s new standard, “I’m out.” That declaration was notable, marking a clean break from those like Ryan, who as recently as Tuesday pledged to back the GOP and support the nominee, even if it’s Trump. But Sasse says that no true conservative is unduly bound to his party. “I’m an American first, conservative second, and a Republican only in a distant third.”
“I want the party of Lincoln and Reagan. Not the party of David Duke and Donald Trump,” he says. “If this is a party that would wink at white supremacists, I’m not leaving the party. The party is leaving me.”
Indeed, although Sasse emphasizes that no single moment catalyzed his anti-Trump stance — he blasted Trump as a “lawless sonuvagun” in his maiden floor speech in December — he says that Trump’s unwillingness to condemn the KKK proved a tipping point. For Sasse, the moment spoke to the inherent cunning of Trump’s campaign strategy, a consistent ploy to “niche market” his way to the White House. Many have observed that Trump’s waffling over David Duke and the KKK was an attempt to save face with southern voters, something that Scarborough, a Florida native, called “insulting” on his show. But it’s precisely this “niche marketing” on which the Trump campaign has thrived, Sasse says. “He’s the best marketer that’s ever run for office. I just have no idea if he has any core principles whatsoever.”
Sasse isn’t blind to the ethos that propelled Trump to his cozy lead. “You are rightly worried about our national direction,” he wrote in his letter to Trump supporters. “You ache about a crony-capitalist leadership class that is not urgent about tackling our crises. You are right to be angry.”
RELATED: America’s Path to Disaster
He reiterates that understanding in our conversation, crediting Trump for laying bare the country’s unheard voices, those whom the political class consistently pledges to protect, and those for whom it consistently fails to follow through. “I get that. Why do you think I ran for office?” he says. “But ‘Let’s burn everything down’ is not the right response. Our response should not be to put up a fundamentally dishonest New York liberal to square off with another fundamentally dishonest New York liberal.”
“I’m really glad Speaker Ryan said what he said,” Sasse says. But it remains true that neither Ryan nor McConnell would utter Trump’s name, even when pressed by reporters in follow-up questions. And many are wondering if the GOP can actually stop Trump from barrelling ahead if its two leaders refuse to call their target by name.
Sasse maps the path forward as a potential replay of the presidential election in 1860, when the Whig party’s internal collapse had given way to something of a four-way race. It made for a seismic shift in America’s political landscape at the time, but Sasse says it was ultimately a force for good, allowing Lincoln to emerge and become the standard-bearer of the Republican party.
It’s not the ideal scenario for 2016, of course, and Sasse issues the disclaimer that it’s a “last resort” in a primary that’s “far from over.” For Sasse, the preferred route is to have the party coalesce behind someone already in the race. He says it’s difficult for him to understand why lawmakers would allow personal grievances to cause them to support Trump over Cruz. “The first thing people should ask in choosing a candidate is: ‘Who loves the Constitution?’ And there is no dispute that Cruz and Rubio both love the Constitution.”As Sasse tells it, when Lindsey Graham said Tuesday night on CBS that Republicans may have to “rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump,” his wife turned to him and said, “Well, there’s a man.”
But if that sentiment doesn’t filter through the party ranks, whether for Cruz or Rubio, Sasse says he’s prepared to lobby hard for a third-party candidate — perhaps to run in the Constitution party, which currently has ballot access in 13 states.
He says since penning his letter, “over 100 names” of potential candidates have been tossed his way.
“Who’s someone you hear over and over?” I ask.
He flashes a grin. “I’m gonna duck you on that one.”
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.