Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger

Conservative Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump lauds tariffs on China while backtracking from more To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies Feds face mounting pressure over Epstein's death MORE (R-Neb.), a frequent critic of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE who said he could not support him during the 2016 cycle, is at risk of a significant primary challenge in 2020, according to GOP sources. 

A Nebraska Republican official told The Hill there are Republicans interested in running for Sasse’s seat, while a senior Republican aide predicted that Sasse will see a primary challenge. 

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Sasse has yet to officially announce if he is running for reelection. The senator plans to have a conversation with his wife, Melissa, this summer about whether he will seek a second term.

But the senator’s office brushes off the possibility that he could be challenged.

James Wegmann, Sasse’s spokesman, said “anyone dumb enough” to run against his boss “would run into two buzz saws.” 

“First, he’s one of the most conservative members of the Senate and Ronald Reagan couldn’t get to his right; second, he’s a fundraising machine and he’s just now ramping up those efforts,” Wegmann said. “The presidential primary speculation is an Acela corridor game played by pundits for pundits. Ben’s not paying attention to this nonsense.”

Sasse has a solidly conservative voting record and says he could raise $6 million for his reelection. He reported having $1.4 million in cash on hand in his campaign account at the end of December. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) also says it will defend Sasse from any challenge.

“It is the policy of the NRSC that we will defend any member of our caucus from any challenge — be it in a primary or general election — by any means necessary,” said NRSC Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin. “Let there be no ambiguity — Sen. Sasse has the unflinching support of the NRSC, and we will not hesitate to engage on his behalf.”

Sasse had a 43 percent approval rating and 34 percent disapproval rating in Nebraska, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted from July 1 to Sept. 25. Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerThe 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow GOP senator introduces bill banning 'addictive' social media features MORE (R-Neb.), who easily won reelection in 2018, had an approval-disapproval split of 42 percent to 39 percent in the same poll. 

A follow up Morning Consult poll published in January showed Sasse with a 46 percent approval and 30 percent disapproval rating. Fischer earned 45 percent approval and 36 percent disapproval.

Those are significant advantages. But they could be countered if Trump, who has a lock on the GOP base, decides to intervene in the 2020 Nebraska primary. 

Trump compiled an impressive record of endorsing GOP primary winners in 2018. According to an ABC News report, 49 of the 51 Republicans he endorsed in 2018 primaries were victorious.

Two former GOP senators who frequently clashed with Trump over the past two years, Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeArpaio considering running for former sheriff job after Trump pardon Overnight Energy: Warren edges past Sanders in poll of climate-focused voters | Carbon tax shows new signs of life | Greens fuming at Trump plans for development at Bears Ears monument Carbon tax shows new signs of life in Congress MORE of Arizona and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE of Tennessee, did not run for reelection last year.

“It should come as no surprise that he wields such power in Republican primaries,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said of Trump. “He’s in lockstep with the Republican base. If he wants to go after Sasse, the opportunity is there for him to do it.”

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Sasse has spurred some behind-the-scenes jockeying for his seat by publicly wavering on whether he will run for reelection — or remain a member of the GOP. 

He said in September that he thinks about leaving the Republican Party every day and told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he views himself as “an independent conservative who caucuses with Republicans” but doesn’t think either major party has a “long-term vision for the future of the country.” 

 A top-tier challenger has yet to emerge, however. Nebraska political observers think it’s unlikely the state’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, who won reelection in November, would decide to run for the Senate in the middle of his second term. 

John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said, “Sasse could well face a primary opponent.”

But he cautioned that “outside of his criticism of Trump and peculiar detachment from the repeal ObamaCare debate” he “has not left much room to his right” for an insurgent to exploit.

Trump is highly popular in Nebraska, unlike in Utah, the home of the Senate’s other foremost Trump critic, newly elected Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyA US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces MORE (R).

Trump won Nebraska with 58.7 percent of the vote over Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Republicans plot comeback in New Jersey MORE. In the GOP primary, he crushed the second-place finisher, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges MORE (R-Texas), with 61.4 percent to 18.4 percent.

The president, however, would not be able to attack Sasse as a squishy conservative or a Republican in name only. 

The American Conservative Union (ACU) rated Sasse in 2017 as the Senate’s second-most conservative member after Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGraham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Rand Paul to 'limit' August activities due to health MORE (R-Ky.), a distinction he shared with stalwart conservatives such as Cruz and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeMcConnell, allies lean into Twitter, media 'war' Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid MORE (R-Utah). All three had an ACU score of 96 that year. 

Sasse is also a vocal opponent of abortion. He tried to force a vote Monday on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which would protect newborns who survive abortions.

Still, Sasse hasn’t fallen into line with Team Trump. 

In an October interview with Tapper, he said Trump’s “amoralistic” rhetoric is “not OK.” Later that month, he criticized the president for calling a woman “Horseface,” saying that’s “not the way men act.” 

On the policy front, Sasse has broken sharply with Trump’s trade and foreign policy decisions. 

He called Trump’s decision last month to pull troops out of Syria “weak,” saying it would cause a lot of American allies to be slaughtered.

In November, he called Trump’s reluctance to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi despite the findings of the CIA “very weak.” 

Sasse also played a prominent role in trying to block Trump’s path to the nomination in 2016, warning in an open letter to Trump supporters posted in February of that year that “Trump’s relentless focus is on dividing Americans” and “on tearing down rather than building back up this glorious nation.”

Asked by The Hill on Thursday if he would endorse Trump for reelection in 2020, Sasse declined to answer. 

By contrast, other Republicans who broke with Trump in 2016, such as Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSchumer blasts 'red flag' gun legislation as 'ineffective cop out' McConnell faces pressure to bring Senate back for gun legislation Shaken Portman urges support for 'red flag' laws after Ohio shooting MORE (Ohio) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down MORE (Colo.), said recently they will endorse the president’s reelection. 

Portman and Gardner rescinded their endorsements of Trump in October 2016 after a tape emerged of him making inappropriate comments about women during the filming of an “Access Hollywood” episode.

Talk that Sasse could run for president against Trump has circulated from time to time, though Hibbing, of the University of Nebraska, downplayed that scenario as unlikely.

“He could decide not to run for anything, or he could decide to run for President — but at the current time I am skeptical that either of these possibilities will come to fruition (unless the Trump Presidency completely collapses),” he said in an email.

— Updated 11:21 a.m.