The Tea Party is not dead, nor does it sleep. Forces representing both the GOP Establishment and grassroots conservative insurgents lined up in Nebraska to exchange point-blank campaign fire, and when the smoke cleared, it was grassroots conservative favorite Ben Sasse who held the Republican nomination for Senate, with heavy odds to win the general election. It wasn’t a close race, either – he took 48 percent of the vote, putting him 25 points ahead of his nearest challenger, Sid Dinsdale.
The Washington Post, which appears utterly fascinated by Sasse – they seem to have dozens of blog posts and articles about him today – thinks he was “an unlikely bet to be championed by Tea Party groups that came to his defense”:
Sasse’s win was a boon to the parade of conservative groups and figures who rallied to his side. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) campaigned for Sasse alongside former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The anti-tax Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund each spent at least hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting Sasse, the president of Midland University.
[…] He previously spoke highly of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, which the Club for Growth opposes. He told MSNBC he’d be comfortable supporting McConnell as the Senate GOP leader. The Senate Conservatives Fund backs Bevin’s bid to unseat McConnell. Osborn attacked Sasse from the right on health-care during the race, airing ads accusing him of not opposing the federal health-care law forcefully enough.
An afterthought for much of the Nebraska campaign, Dinsdale, the president of Pinnacle Bancorp, Inc., loaned his campaign at least $1 million, which enabled him to hit the television airwaves hard during the stretch run of the race. Sasse’s allies started ramping up their attacks against him during the final week.
The Club for Growth hit the airwaves with an attack ad casting Dinsdale as too liberal. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, also a Sasse champion, wrote a piece highlighting Dinsdale’s relatives’ ties to groups that support abortion rights, an effort to weaken him in the eyes of conservative voters.
Speaking of Erick Erickson, he can hear all those half-written “Establishment finishes off the Tea Party” posts sizzling right off the hard drives of Establishment-friendly analysts, and foresees a wave of retroactive Sasse support rolling all the way back to the beginning of the primary. But before the Etch-a-Sketches of collective political memory are shaken, let us note for the record that the Nebraska race was a fairly clear-cut battle between grassroots conservatives and everybody else, and the conservatives’ pick won by 25 points. If memory serves correctly, Sasse wasn’t even polling in double digits when this primary race began.
Candidate quality matters. Contrary to the ideal of unsullied outsiders swinging into Washington with grassroots legions at their backs, candidate quality is even more important for the insurgents, because they’ve got to deal with powerful internal party adversaries and the opposing party during the election. Conservative insurgents are also fated to do battle with the Washington system, which has a certain unhealthy trans-partisan life of its own.
As another of those Washington Post articles on Sasse details, he holds five academic degrees, had an impressive business career, and also brought considerable experience in government to the table, having worked in various capacities for the Justice Department, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Congress. The Tea Party movement, still very young by the standards of political history, has run into trouble with both sincere but inexperienced candidates, and people who were taking advantage of the movement to further their own ambitions. For a political movement with little in the way of centralized structure or formal leadership, it has quickly improved its instincts for fielding tough contenders. It’s not a flawless record, of course, but has any other “outsider” group done as well over the past generation?
Successful general election efforts are not launched by crushing primary enemies, driving them before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women, to borrow a phrase from Conan the Barbarian. Naturally most primary wins are followed by ritual declarations of party unity and “coming together” behind the candidate, but it really helps when those declarations aren’t forced through clenched teeth. Sasse has the resume and “electability” quotient the Republican Establishment is always looking for. The National Republican Senatorial Committee seems pretty darned happy to have him aboard.
There are many ways for conservatives to send signals to the Republican Party leadership. Convincing wins with solid candidates are the most powerful transmission system. Most grassroots conservatives probably don’t want to fight a decade-long party-splitting war, with an eye toward rebuilding a more conservative GOP after a generation of unchallenged Democrat rule. That means some sort of assimilation process between conservatives and the Establishment is going to take place. One hopes that a candidate of Ben Sasse’s quality will help guide that process in a direction favorable to conservatives.
Some fear he’s more likely to hit D.C. and “go native,” or maybe he was an Establishment guy hoodwinking the Tea Party into supporting him all along. We’re likely to find out soon enough. Contrary to the narrative about a “Republican civil war,” I tend to think the 2014 election is all about preventing the civil war. If another big Republican wave rolls across the Beltway and vanishes without a trace of change, we’ll probably find out what that “burn down the party and rebuild it from the ashes 10 years from now” saga looks like. If that happens, the GOP won’t be the only thing getting salvaged from ruin.