Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger

Conservative Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSwing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike Swing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike House Dems move to give lawmakers a pay increase MORE (R-Neb.), a frequent critic of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally 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 Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle Steve King denied seat on Air Force One for Trump trip to Iowa: report 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 FlakeDemocrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE of Arizona and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment 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 RomneyHarris hits Trump plan for mass deportations in Spanish-language response A health insurer takes on his own industry: Describe clearly what we favor, not attack what we oppose A health insurer takes on his own industry: Describe clearly what we favor, not attack what we oppose MORE (R).

Trump won Nebraska with 58.7 percent of the vote over Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Five takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Trump jokes he'd get 'electric chair' if he deleted even one 'love note' email to Melania MORE. In the GOP primary, he crushed the second-place finisher, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias GOP lawmaker delays House for second week GOP lawmaker delays House for second week 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 PaulOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions MORE (R-Ky.), a distinction he shared with stalwart conservatives such as Cruz and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions 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 PortmanHouse passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams House passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump MORE (Ohio) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerKoch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate 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.