The Next Ted Cruz?

How Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse won over the Tea Party and almost everyone else.

Ben Sasse, republican congressional candidate from Nebraska.
Ben Sasse.

Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

If you believe the polls, Nebraska’s next senator will be a health care consultant and university president who recently described himself as a “nerd” and an “autodidact.” He did not say that to a Republican crowd. He said that to a room full of intellectuals, or people paying to look like intellectuals at TEDxOmaha.

Yet the nerd in question, Ben Sasse, will likely win today’s three-way Republican primary as the candidate of the populist right—of Sarah Palin, of Sen. Ted Cruz, of the National Review, of the Tea Party Express. He won them over by holding town halls where, standing beside a stacked-up copy of the Affordable Care Act, he would wonk out for hours and shame Republicans who couldn’t offer their own, credible Obamacare alternatives. Sure, the law was doomed, but his party had to explain why.

“We’re setting the rates for tens of thousands of things, and we know this doesn’t work,” Sasse told me last year. “I think the numbers are: Medicare is setting payment rates for like 11,000 drugs and procedures, crosswalked by 100 different geographies, whatever that math comes out to. It isn’t workable. You ultimately are going to have cost control in this system.”

The easy read on Nebraska’s primary is that it will test the already tired theme of the “Tea Party versus the establishment.” That’s not quite true. Sasse is a veteran of the establishment who masterfully ingratiated himself with the conservative movement. He did so by appealing to them personally, by seeking out media to tell his story, and by acing the interviews that major endorsers demand of their candidates.

“We talked to all the candidates in Nebraska,” says Sal Russo, the Republican consultant who co-founded Tea Party Express. Shane Osborn, the one-term state treasurer who had led the early polls, didn’t seem terrible. After all, he was a fan of Jack Kemp; he’d briefly been imprisoned by the Chinese in 2001, after crashing a spy plane. “But Sasse had a stronger campaign organization, and we’re looking for people that can put together viable political campaigns. This is not 2010, when we thought it was important to take a stand and reflect the disappointment people had with both parties. We need viable candidates now.”

Sasse became viable the old-fashioned way—by lapping his opponents in fundraising. He’d never run for office before, but he easily out-raised Osborn, and raised twice as much as Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale. (Dinsdale papered over the gap by moving $1 million from his wallet to his campaign.) The word went out early that the 42-year old wonk was going to be a new Ted Cruz. That was very specific praise. Cruz, however he’s viewed by the press and the left, was seen by the Tea Party as a generational talent with an unmatched intellectual command of the Constitution and the law.

And so, 11 months before the primary, right after Republican Sen. Mike Johanns announced his retirement, Sasse was profiled glowingly in the Weekly Standard. Reporting from Fremont, Nebraska, where Sasse ran Midland University, Mark Hemingway declared that the candidate had “reinvented the higher education wheel” and created “the best of all worlds” with McKinsey-esque metrics and standards. (That was also the subject of his TED talk.)

Next came the Tea Party taste-makers. Nebraska was a gimme race—serious Democrats had been obliterated in 2008 and 2012 open-seat runs, and no one with a future was going to run in a midterm year. Republicans could nominate the most conservative candidate possible, so Sasse and Osborn presented themselves that way to endorsers. Sasse cut a few straight-to-camera videos in which he dared Republicans to “show some actual leadership.” Endorsers like that sort of thing. The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint to aid insurgents in primaries, backed Sasse in October 2013; the Club for Growth backed Sasse in early November 2013.

But the endorsement process degenerated rather quickly into farce. Later in November, when Sasse met with Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP minority leader attacked him for cutting the “leadership” video and accepting support from a group—the Senate Conservatives Fund—that was funding a Kentucky primary challenger.

Here’s the irony, one that will run through modern conservative politics for years to come. The McConnell spat probably helped Sasse. In January, the candidate earned a cover story in National Review, labeling him “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis.” Sasse liked it so much that he ran a TV ad with the cover image, even re-enacting the photo shoot. His opponents decided to attack his strength. Hadn’t Sasse presided over the birth of Medicare Part D? Hadn’t he been paid to talk about Obamacare since it was implemented? And hadn’t he once called Obamacare an “important first step” in the takeover of health care?

“He supports the basic principles of Obamacare,” wrote FreedomWorks’s Dean Clancy in March 2014. FreedomWorks had endorsed Osborn, and was increasingly looking isolated. “Universal coverage, individual mandate, premium support—he just wants it to be less complicated, less top-down, more efficient , and presumably more patient-friendly… I think he’s a Mitt Romney-style technocrat masquerading as an anti-Obamacare firebrand for temporary political purposes.”

The attacks never connected. The “important first step” quote, which Osborn and Dinsdale used to batter Sasse, was ripped from a blander, nerdier speech. “Ultimately,” Sasse had said in 2010, “what we passed in March is an important first step on thinking about the coverage problem in the American health care system.” The attack was so obviously flawed that Sasse’s hometown newspaper called on the rival campaigns to stop bowdlerizing it.

That didn’t work, but the sense that Sasse was being attacked by “the establishment” absolutely did. On March 4, Utah Sen. Mike Lee endorsed Sasse. On March 28, FreedomWorks announced that it had bailed on Osborn and endorsed Sasse. “It is clear that Shane Osborn formed allegiances with Mitch McConnell and the K Street lobbying class,” FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe explained. Dean Clancy quit the organization, and has not responded to any questions since then. Later, when a Daily Caller reporter followed up, Kibbe explained that his new candidate was “organizing around the grassroots, around the kinds of senators like Mike Lee and Ted Cruz who I have a lot of respect for.”

Nothing had come out to peg Osborn as a “moderate.” Nothing suggested he’d be less conservative than Sasse. The movement turned on him anyway, and the nadir of this probably occurred when the candidates appeared back to back on the April 17 episode of Glenn Beck’s talk show. Beck, who is paid by FreedomWorks for promotional work, gave Osborn all the rope he needed to hang himself.

“Karl Rove helped Sasse raise money,” snarled Osborn, after being asked whether he was the Rove candidate. “It’s Michael Bloomberg’s TV team that’s getting behind Sasse.”

“You’re not in unfriendly territory,” interrupted Beck. “Do you realize that?”

Osborn recovered slightly, pointing out that he was a combat veteran and Sasse wasn’t.

“John McCain?” asked Beck rhetorically. “Enough John McCain.”

Then came the tailspin. Osborn mentioned that he’d be hosting a tele-townhall with Grover Norquist. The video feed of Beck’s show captured the host in something between a snarl and a gasp. When the candidate signed off, Beck’s zoo crew made fun of how he’d mispronounced Norquist’s name—Nord-quist—as the host pronounced the Americans for Tax Reform president as a “very dangerous, bad, bad guy.”

Sasse was up next. Beck asked him whether all his educational experience would turn him into a Senate know-it all.

“That’s the right kind of skeptical question our founders would relate to,” said Sasse.

Interviews like this weren’t what took Sasse from 5 percent to first place. Gaffe-free months of fundraising and campaigning did that. The anti-establishment posture just made him impossible to stop. By the final weekend, the only possible threat to a Sasse win was a late surge by Dinsdale, the colorless Omaha banker who’d stayed out of the establishment/Tea Party proxy wars and scored some newspaper endorsements. Sasse’s endorsers, starting with the Club for Growth, responded with a TV ad blitz. The smart guy, the one they’d turned into their avatar, needed to win this one.