- - Wednesday, May 14, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Ben Sasse’s victory in Tuesday’s Nebraska Republican Senate primary was no victory for the Tea Party over establishment Republicans, though the establishment Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for making it look that way. Mr. Sasse is indeed a strong conservative, but so was Shane Osborn, the former state treasurer who entered the race as the front-runner and ended the night in third place, behind the not-as-conservative Sid Dinsdale.

The contest was never seen in Nebraska as a clear contest of the Tea Party vs. the establishment. Mr. Osborn checked all the right boxes on the list of hot-button issues, from abortion (“adamantly pro-life”) to Obamacare (“full repeal”) to guns (“opposed to any gun or ammunition ban”) to homosexual marriage (“marriage is a union between one man and one woman”) to the budget (“cut taxes and reduce federal spending”).

To Washington insiders, the race was about two prominent senators, Mitch McConnell, the leader of Senate Republicans, and the aggressive Ted Cruz, and perhaps even a former senator, Jim DeMint, who together collected millions of conservative dollars to fuel an intraparty feud. Sen. Cruz and his allies say they are primarily interested in nominating and electing solid conservatives, such as Mr. Sasse, but Mr. Osborn is hardly a squish. Mr. McConnell says he is only interested in supporting electable candidates such as Mr. Osborn, but Mr. Sasse is eminently electable, too.

So why the tempest in the party teapot? Well, Mr. McConnell vowed to oppose anyone, including Mr. Sasse, with the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has paid for advertisements against the Senate leader in his home state of Kentucky. Mr. McConnell wanted to take out Mr. Sasse to make good his vow. Mr. Cruz and his friends were out to pressure national conservatives to back their man, lest Mr. McConnell’s man win. Politicians find payback hard to resist.

Mr. Osborn, in fact, had the support of several important Nebraska Tea Party and taxpayer groups, and Mr. Sasse, an official in the George W. Bush administration (which bestowed membership in the Republican establishment), had the backing of national Tea Party groups and from the Senate Conservatives Fund, managed by associates of Mr. DeMint, the former senator from South Carolina and now the president of the Heritage Foundation. This is what transformed the Nebraska race into something it wasn’t, a saliva test of who was really the conservative in the race.

National conservative groups spent millions of dollars in behalf of Mr. Sasse, and groups loosely aligned with Mr. McConnell rallied around Mr. Osborn. The conservatives threw rocks at each other, splitting votes that opened the door for the good showing by Mr. Dinsdale, an Omaha banker.

Mr. Sasse is a solid favorite in the general election to win the seat held by Mike Johanns, a Republican who is retiring. Had he won the primary, Mr. Osborn would be the favorite, too. In bright-red Nebraska, the Republicans could afford the kind of brawling that in other places makes more Democrats. Mr. Sasse enjoyed a very comfortable victory, but a lot of money was spent that Republicans will need this fall to take on Democrats in tight races.

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