Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger

Conservative Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSenators take fundraising efforts to Nats playoff games On The Money: Fed officials saw rising risk of recession | Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz blast NBA for 'outrageous' response to China | Prospects dim for trade breakthrough with China Ocasio-Cortez, Ted Cruz join colleagues blasting NBA for 'outrageous' response to China MORE (R-Neb.), a frequent critic of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage 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 FischerStatue of Chief Standing Bear to be unveiled in Capitol The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow 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 FlakeHow to survive an impeachment Are Senate Republicans certain that Trump can return to office? Jeff Flake calls Trump's language 'authoritarian' 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 RomneyVideo of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Reid warns Democrats not to underestimate Trump McConnell tightlipped as impeachment furor grows MORE (R).

Trump won Nebraska with 58.7 percent of the vote over Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonVideo of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Ronan Farrow exposes how the media protect the powerful Kamala Harris to Trump Jr.: 'You wouldn't know a joke if one raised you' MORE. In the GOP primary, he crushed the second-place finisher, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz: 'Of course' it's not appropriate to ask China to investigate Bidens Sunday Show Preview: Trump's allies and administration defend decision on Syria O'Rourke raises .5 million in third quarter 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 PaulRand Paul calls for probe of Democrats over Ukraine letter Sunday Show Preview: Trump's allies and administration defend decision on Syria Ana Navarro clashes with Rand Paul in fiery exchange: 'Don't mansplain!' MORE (R-Ky.), a distinction he shared with stalwart conservatives such as Cruz and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe McConnell warns Trump against withdrawing troops from Syria The American people deserve a debate about Ukrainian military 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 PortmanGOP senator: 'Not appropriate' to ask foreign governments to investigate Biden GOP senator says he doesn't remember signing 2016 letter urging 'reform' of Ukraine prosecutor's office Lobbying World MORE (Ohio) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerRepublicans wrestle with impeachment strategy McConnell tightlipped as impeachment furor grows Gardner dodges questions about Trump's call for Biden probe 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.