Elections

Ben Sasse Defeats GOP Primary Challenger by 50 Points

Sen. Ben Sasse speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., September 27, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)
The freshman senator from Nebraska cruised to victory despite his sometimes-uneasy relationships with both President Trump’s supporters and opponents.

Incumbent freshman Ben Sasse coasted to victory in Tuesday’s Nebraska GOP Senate primary with 75 percent of the vote.

Sasse had faced a challenge from Matt Innis, a businessman who argued he’d been insufficiently supportive of President Trump in the Senate. Sasse angered some Trump loyalists because he cast his presidential ballot for Mike Pence in November 2016 and has been more willing to criticize Trump than many of his GOP colleagues on a wide range of matters, from the president’s character and the Ukraine scandal to trade policy.

At the same time, Sasse’s record over the last few years has left some staunch Trump critics disappointed. He voted to uphold the president’s declaration of a national emergency to divert funding toward the construction of a border wall in March 2016, and he came to the conclusion that the president’s behavior in the Ukraine scandal was bad but didn’t merit removal from office. His criticism of the president also became quieter last year as he geared up for the primary, a development that helped earn him Trump’s endorsement and scorn from Michigan congressman Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party over his opposition to Trump:

In his closing arguments of the primary campaign, Sasse said he’d lived up to his promise to always vote his conscience as an independent conservative. “Ben’s been good as his word, speaks his mind. He might have even ticked you off a time or two,” the narrator in a Sasse campaign ad said. “He’s ticked off a lot of folks these past six years, from the radical left to every now and then even the president from his own party.” A Trump tweet from 2016 calling Sasse a “gym rat” then flashed across the screen.

In September 2018, Sasse said he regularly thought about leaving the Republican Party to become an independent, but he never found himself in hot water with anywhere close to a majority of Republican voters in his own state. In February 2019, before his vote on the Trump’s national-emergency declaration and before the president’s endorsement, Sasse’s approval rating among Nebraska Republicans stood at 74 percent, almost exactly his share of the vote in the May 2020 primary.

Sasse’s frustration with the Senate and his own party led some to raise the question of why he even wanted another term. In an interview with National Review last year, Sasse said he’d focus in a second term on promoting civics, serving on the Intelligence Committee, and debating the future of work in America. During the recent debate over the $2 trillion coronavirus-relief package, he was one of four GOP senators to sound the alarm that the legislation was creating a “perverse disincentive to uncouple employers and employees” by making unemployment benefits pay more than full paychecks for many workers.

Sasse also said last year that part of the reason he was seeking another term was to play a role in the post-Trump fights within the Republican Party. He said he has “calling” as “a Tocquevillian or a principled pluralist or a constitutionalist” to fight for his own faction within the conservative coalition, which he realized is smaller than he once thought.

“I don’t trust that the big-business part of our coalition is ever going to defend federalism and argue against regulatory capture. I don’t trust that populists are going to defend religious liberty and the rights of creedal minorities,” he said. “I just don’t really want to spend very much of my time on Donald Trump.”

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