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Ben Sasse wins Nebraska GOP Senate nomination

Buoyed by national tea party support, Ben Sasse won a brutal three-way race in Nebraska to become the GOP Senate nominee.
Image: Ben Sasse
Nebraska Republican Senate candidate Ben Sasse, the president of Midland University, campaigns in Elmwood, Nebraska, March 12, 2014.

Midland University president Ben Sasse will be the GOP nominee in the race for Nebraska’s open Senate seat after defeating two Republican rivals in a battle that drew major interest from national tea party activists. Republicans are heavily favored to win the general election. 

Sasse’s campaign enjoyed strong backing from national conservative leaders, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and tea party groups like Club For Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund. 

For the tea party, Sasse's win provides a much needed morale boost. North Carolina Republicans resoundingly chose an establishment favorite, Thom Tillis, last week over the Rand Paul-backed Greg Brannon, while Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin’s challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has hit the skids. A quixotic campaign to defeat Speaker John Boehner in Ohio came nowhere close to succeeding.

Sasse fought a brutal two-way race with former state treasurer Shane Osborn, paving the way for a third candidate, banker Sid Dinsdale, to make a late run positioning himself as an outsider alternative above the fray.

As has often been the case in recent GOP grudge matches, the lines between tea party and establishment were blurred in Nebraska’s primary. The candidates largely agreed on policy, hewing closely to the base’s conservative consensus on nearly every issue.

Even the candidates' biographies played against type. The “populist outsider” Sasse was a university president with degrees from Harvard and Yale who had held multiple posts in the Bush administration. The “establishment insider” Osborn was a celebrated Navy pilot who landed a burning plane with 23 passengers after it was struck by a Chinese fighter jet in 2001.

Tea party advocacy group FreedomWorks initially endorsed Osborn in the race, but angrily withdrew their backing after a super PAC run by a former McConnell aide began running ads against Sasse. FreedomWorks, which has made unseating McConnell a top priority this year, then switched its endorsement to Sasse.

For all the drama around McConnell’s indirect involvement in the race, Sasse said on Tuesday that he would “absolutely” support him as Senate leader. 

“I’m a team player and looking forward to supporting whoever our leader is,” Sasse told msnbc.

Perhaps because the candidates had so few differences on policy, the attack ads were especially vicious. One brutal ad by the 60 Plus Association featured a group of veterans condemning Osborn for allegedly embellishing his service record