Is Nebraska About to Create the Next Ted Cruz?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 13 2014 5:58 PM

The Next Ted Cruz?

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

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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.”

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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.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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