Midland University President Ben Sasse won the hard-fought Nebraska Senate GOP primary on Tuesday, delivering national conservative groups a much-needed win as they work to overcome early disappointments this cycle.
While Sasse emerged over a month ago as the frontrunner in the primary, his nomination had became less certain over the past two weeks as banker Sid Dinsdale emerged as a potential spoiler candidate.
Dinsdale was looking to take advantage over a potential opening left by the nasty primary fight between Sasse and the initial GOP frontrunner, former state Treasurer Shane Osborn.
When Sasse began to sweep support from national conservative groups early on in the race, Osborn turned negative, attacking his opponent as insufficiently opposed to ObamaCare and lacking deep ties to the state.
Osborn pointed to Sasse’s time in consulting on healthcare policy in the George W. Bush administration, as well as his work for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s transition team, as evidence the candidate wasn’t the conservative stalwart he seemed.
Osborn was also buoyed by allies of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who reportedly opposed Sasse’s candidacy. A former McConnell staffer helped Osborn raise money, and an outside group with ties to McConnell poured over $200,000 in attacks on Sasse in the final weeks of the race.
That support for McConnell became somewhat of a double-edged sword for Osborn, however, as it lost him the endorsement of FreedomWorks, which switched to back Sasse due to concerns that Osborn would be beholden to the Washington establishment.
And Sasse’s backers, which include the likes of the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, among others, hammered Osborn in return. They highlighted questions surrounding his military service, one of his main assets in the race, and accused him of a pattern of misleading voters on that service and his tenure as state Treasurer.
Those attacks, coupled with the boost Sasse enjoyed from his spate of big-name endorsements, initially drove him to the front of the pack.
But Nebraskans are known for their distaste for nasty politicking, and a similarly nasty primary during the 2012 cycle ultimately led to now-Sen. Deb Fischer’s (R) come-from-behind win of the GOP nomination, giving Dinsdale a blueprint for success this cycle.
He nabbed the endorsement of the Omaha World-Herald and surged from third to second place in a final one-night internal survey conducted for Sasse’s campaign last week.
But Dinsdale’s surge perhaps came too early to push him over the edge. With two weeks left in the primary, outside groups backing Sasse hammered Dinsdale, launching ads that tarred him as a “liberal” and pointing to donations he gave to Democrats and comments he made about raising the debt limit under all circumstances as evidence.
Sasse is expected to easily win the seat this fall, as he faces only token Democratic opposition and Nebraska is reliably red.
And he was already looking to make amends with McConnell on Tuesday morning, before the outcome of the primary was clear. Asked whether he’d support McConnell for GOP leader in January, if elected, Sasse — who had previously declined to answer questions on the subject — said on MSNBC he’d “absolutely” be comfortable doing so.