Republican Ben Sasse comfortably won his partys nomination for Senate in Nebraska on Tuesday, handing the national tea party groups that backed him a much-needed victory heading into the heart of a congressional primary season offering few opportunities for success.
A week ahead of Senate nominating contests in Kentucky and Georgia, where tea party candidates have fizzled, and a House primary in Idaho, where the tea party challenger may lose, national conservative groups were nervously watching Nebraska, where they deployed substantial resources to support Sasse.
Ben Sasses victory in the Nebraska Senate Republican primary shows the strength of the conservative movement. All three candidates ran as conservatives as GOP candidates are doing everywhere but Nebraskans werent fooled, conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III said.
Sasses win was a boon to the parade of conservative groups and figures who rallied to his side. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, 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 hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting Sasse, the president of Midland University.
Sasse blunted a mini-surge from wealthy bank executive Sid Dinsdale, who appeared to emerge as a threat during the final week of the campaign amid a nasty advertising battle pitting Sasse and his allies against former state treasurer Shane Osborn, the candidate most closely aligned with the GOP establishment.
With more than a quarter of precincts reporting, Sasse led Dinsdale 46 percent to 24 percent, with Osborn running a close third, with 23 percent. Sasse will be a heavy favorite in the general election, considering Nebraskas strong conservative tilt.
GOP attention now shifts to next Tuesday, a day that has long been circled on Republican calendars because of the number of contested primaries being held. Tea party candidates will face an uphill climb that day.
In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is the front-runner over conservative businessman Matt Bevin. Bevins campaign has not gained much steam amid distracting setbacks such as his attendance at a pro-cockfighting rally.
In Georgia, Rep. Jack Kingston, an appropriator who has earned the ire of conservatives, appears to be near the head of a pack alongside businessman David Perdue in a Senate primary most close watchers think will head to a runoff. Tea party favorites such as Rep. Paul Broun, meanwhile, are running well behind.
In Idahos 2nd Congressional District, the business wing of the GOP is battling the tea party in a fight that pits Rep. Mike Simpson against lawyer Bryan Smith. Simpson is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Smith is backed by the Club for Growth.
In some ways, Sasse is an unlikely bet to be championed by tea party groups that came to his defense. He previously spoke highly of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, which the Club for Growth opposes. He told MSNBC that he would be comfortable supporting McConnell as the Senate GOP leader. The Senate Conservatives Fund backs Bevins bid to unseat McConnell. Osborn attacked Sasse from the right on health care during the race, airing ads accusing him of not opposing the Affordable Care Act forcefully enough.
An afterthought for much of the Nebraska campaign, Dinsdale, the president of Pinnacle Bancorp, lent his campaign at least $1 million, which enabled him to hit the television airwaves hard. Sasses allies started ramping up their attacks against him during the final week.
The Club for Growth ran an attack ad casting Dinsdale as too liberal. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, also a Sasse champion, wrote a piece highlighting Dinsdales relatives connections to groups that support abortion rights, an effort to weaken him in the eyes of conservative voters.
West Virginia also held its primaries Tuesday. In the Senate race, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Democrat, advanced to a general-election showdown, as expected. Whoever wins the general election will make history as West Virginias first female senator. In the race for Capitos GOP-leaning district, tea party-backed candidate Alex Mooney won the GOP nomination and will face Democrat Nick Casey.