- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 14, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Within minutes of being declared Nebraska’s Republican Senate nominee, Ben Sasse telephoned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to offer his support.

The gesture Tuesday night followed a bitter primary campaign in which Sasse’s candidacy was buoyed by tea party conservatives seeking to shake up the very GOP establishment McConnell represents.

Sasse will be heavily favored to win the November election in deeply conservative Nebraska, but it remains to be seen whether his style will align with such tea party firebrands as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.

“Most Americans and definitely most Nebraskans are basically conservative but we need to make a better case to them for private sector solutions,” Sasse, 42, said in an Associated Press interview.

Dave Domina, the Omaha lawyer who won the Democratic Senate primary, vowed to campaign honorably, calling it his “duty to all Nebraskans.” The winner will succeed retiring Republican Sen. Mike Johanns in Washington, joining Deb Fischer, who pulled off a surprising victory in the Republican primary two years earlier.

Although Sasse’s margin of victory was relatively comfortable, the state’s other top race - for governor - was decided by a razor-thin margin.

Wealthy Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts defeated Attorney General Jon Bruning to win the Republican nomination to replace Gov. Dave Heineman.

“I want you to know this is just the first step,” said Ricketts, a former executive of online brokerage TD Ameritrade. “We are now on a journey that is going to take us to November, so this is no time to let up. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Bruning, who lost to Fischer in the 2012 governor’s race, acknowledged his disappointment.

“This hurts,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you.”

As with the GOP Senate primary, Ricketts will be a heavy favorite in the fall. Of Nebraska’s 1.1 million voters, Republicans account for 550,000, more than either Democrats or independents.

The path for both candidates turned rocky in recent weeks, with Bruning and Ricketts sparring over their experience and accusing each other of running negative campaigns.

Tea party-backed groups such as Senate Conservative Fund spent $1.2 million on Sasse’s race, some promoting him and some attacking his onetime chief rival, Shane Osborn, a former state treasurer. To win, Sasse had to also overcome a late charge by Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale. Lawyer Bart McLeay and businessman Clifton Johnson trailed the other three on the ballot.

Although his victory represented the first of the election season for a major tea party-backed candidate, Sasse dismissed the notion that negative ads aired by groups supporting him made difference.

“We were ahead by a lot before there was any negative stuff happening in the race,” he said.

McConnell faces his own Republican primary in a week, though he has emerged the favorite despite Senate Conservative Fund spending $1 million for McConnell’s challenger Matt Bevin, and bundling as much for him. GOP Sen. Thad Cochran faces a challenge on June 3, and establishment Republicans including former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour have allied to help him.

Wendy McMinn, a nurse from Omaha, said she was turned off by the negative ads that bombarded TV viewers, but did not associate them with Sasse.

“I felt like he stayed above the fray and focused on what he could do for Nebraska,” McMinn said.

Omaha oncologist Bob Langdon said candidates could have called for the groups to take the ads down and that their objection to them was artificial.

“The last week became such a barrage,” he said. “For the candidates not to tell the outside groups to shut it down is really unfortunate.”

Doug Roe of Bellevue said Osborn’s late attacks on Sasse, a former George W. Bush administration undersecretary, on health care were “comical.”

“I was influenced by some of the advertising for some of the advertising, negatively,” said Doug Roe of Bellevue. “I would say the ads that his opponents were in steered me away from them and toward Sid Dinsdale.”

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