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.