Ben Sasse, who has publicly grappled with ambivalence about the Senate, the Republican Party and President Donald Trump, ended months of speculation about his plans with the announcement that he will run again for his Nebraska Senate seat.
“What’s at stake in 2020 is a choice between civics and socialism,” he said Monday at the Millard airport, outside of Omaha, where he was introduced by a string of state GOP leaders.
Sasse described a country facing a “civic crisis,” characterized by the opioid epidemic and the “rise in socialism of people under the age of 35.” He also described the weekend mass shootings in Texas and Ohio as symptoms of the same crisis.
Those events, he said, were attributable to “surging racial hatred online, people willing to kill because they don’t understand the American idea” and to “fatherlessness” that “drives so many people to become lone rangers and killers.”
Sasse’s decision to seek a second term sets up a referendum on the Trump era wisdom that criticizing the president bodes poorly for a future in Republican politics.
The 47-year-old is one of the last remaining members of the “Never Trump” faction in Congress, with many of those who opposed the president in 2016 either retiring or losing primary challenges in the years since.
A former university president, Sasse has combined his jabs at Trump with wonkish criticism of party politics and the way things work in Washington. He has described himself as an “independent conservative,” and told CNN’s Jake Tapper last year that he thought about leaving the Republican Party every day.
But he has become more reticent in recent months. A personal Twitter account he used to blast out pithy take-downs of Trump during the 2016 campaign has been silent since May. And he sided with the president in March to uphold his declaration of an emergency on the southern border, a vote that saw 12 Republican senators cross party lines.
As he has tempered his criticism of Trump, he has netted higher approval ratings in Nebraska, which backed the president over Hillary Clinton by 26 points in 2016.
Sasse’s approval rating among Republicans in his state has risen by 14 points over the last two quarters, according to the most recent Morning Consult survey.
But that has not insulated him from a primary challenge. Local GOP activist Matt Innis rolled out his campaign last week with a broadside against Sasse.
“You can’t find anything he’s really accomplished other than bashing the president,” the former chairman of the Lancaster County Republican Party told the Omaha World-Herald.
Representatives from Sasse’s previous campaign did not return requests for comment for this story. His 2014 campaign manager Tyler Grassmeyer has touted the senator’s record as one of the most conservative members of the chamber. Sasse voted with his party 99.3 percent of the time in 2018, higher than average for Republicans senators, according to a CQ Vote Watch analysis. But he was less supportive of the president, voting with with Trump 96 percent of the time, compared with the 97.5 party average for Senate Republicans.
Sasse, who had $2.7 million in his campaign account at the end of June, will have the help of outside groups this cycle. The anti-tax Club for Growth endorsed him in February. And the National Republican Senate Committee has said it will back incumbents over primary challengers.