The bottom line is that he’s an impressive, capable candidate, especially given that this was his first time out of the gate. But in terms of tactics, this is what was important:
Sasse established his identity as a fierce opponent of Obamacare early on, and — in a strategic risk — went up with TV advertising very early. The campaign did this even though it knew it didn’t have the funds to stay up on TV and would have go dark for a long stretch during the heart of the campaign.
The advertising drove attendance at town-hall meetings, which were basically the only campaign events Sasse did. He was doing them all around the state when he was no longer up on TV, driving his message and establishing personal contact with a big swath of the primary electorate. His campaign robo-called local Republicans to get them attend, and even if they didn’t show up, they heard a brief version of Sasse’s campaign pitch on the phone. Sasse brought a 9.5-foot tall stack of Obamacare regulations to every town hall, almost guaranteeing a picture of him and the stack in every local paper.
In addition, the campaign invested in technology that allowed it to maximize its reach among its supporters in social media; when it wanted to push back against attacks, it could have its supporters get the word out to one another, a cheap and credible means of communication.
Even when the campaign was functionally broke, it spent online and could achieve near-saturation with its target audience without spending much money. The long-form Internet video “11 Missed Calls” about his wife’s aneurysm and the problems with our health-care system was incredibly affecting and got tens of thousands of views in Nebraska. The media tends to obsess on TV advertising, and miss the importance of online exposure.
Sasse started out with very low name identification, and the endorsement of the Senate Conservatives Fund and the National Review cover were crucial to breaking through. The NR cover line about Sasse being “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis” became almost his unofficial title. Papers would report that “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis” was coming to town; the campaign joked that Sasse’s wife had started calling him “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis” at home.
Of course, you’d expect me to emphasize NR’s role, but that of SCF was essential. It spent big in the state, and helped bring other big endorsements — Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Sarah Palin. Those three did a joint 1,000-person rally in rural Nebraska that provided a much-needed boost at a time when Sasse was getting hurt by negative TV ads against him. Mark Levin did an excellent wide-ranging interview with Sasse and endorsed him on-air at the end of it. And the Drudge Report played an enormous part in spreading the word with its favorable coverage of Sasse.
For the longest time, it seemed a two-man race between Sasse and Shane Osborn, although a wealthy businessman, Sid Dinsdale, was lurking in the background. Often in such races, the top contenders immolate themselves in a two-man war, creating the space for the third candidate to rise. It seemed that might happen when Osborn went up his negative TV ads attacking Sasse. But Sasse, with the luxury of the support of outside groups that ran negative ads, didn’t respond in kind. He stayed positive, in keeping with the general tenor of his campaign offering a solution-oriented conservatism. Osborn’s attacks were weak and he appeared personally in the spots, so they at the of the day they seemed to have hurt him more than Sasse. He dipped beneath Dinsdale in the polls, while Sasse maintained a lead.
By then the candidate who was the main threat to Sasse was Dinsdale, who had vulnerabilities on the issues, but the capability to blow it out with a massive spending spree from his own bank account. He spent liberally, but not enough to change the basic dynamic of the race.
Finally, there was a scare when a shadowy PAC went up with a TV buy against Sasse in the race’s final days. The Sasse campaign heard it might be just the beginning, but believes the stink raised by conservative outlets about the PAC — bizarrely, its treasurer was Tom Cotton’s campaign manager — may have forestalled more spending. Regardless, the PAC’s spending seemed to galvanize the conservative outside groups supporting Sasse, which came in with even more spending at the end.
And so it is that Ben Sasse won in a blowout and is very likely the next senator from Nebraska.