Sunday, August 23, 2020

Race of the Day- Nebraska U.S. Senate

Nebraska U.S. Senate

72 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent

2016 Presidential Result: Red State (Midwest)

Outlook: Safe Republican

The Cornhusker State is conservative and the idea of sending a Democrat to the U.S. Senate seems far-fetched since the last time it happened in 1994. This particular cycle, that party has found itself in a bit of a shambles which has lead to this race being all but conceded, with the possible residual effect of Democrats also being harmed in more competitive Congressional races or the attempt to win an Electoral Vote out of the 2nd District.

Six years ago, Republican Ben Sasse was a first time candidate for office, who by the age of 42 at the time had complied an impressive resume both inside and outside of government. In the GOP U.S. Senate primary, he took on better known candidates, as well as a statewide elected official who had the backing of the national party, and prevailed easily in a crowded primary, with the help of individuals associated with the Tea Party. The general election was mostly an afterthought, and Sasse won by a more than 2-1 margin.

Nowadays, Sasse is not nearly as much of a beloved figure to some who touted him when he first ran. The biggest reason being that Donald Trump arrived on the political scene and took over the Republican Party and the conservative movement itself. Sasse, as a Senator, made it clear that he actually believed the things he had campaigned on and early on said he would not find it possible to support Trump should he become the Republican nominee. After that happened, Sasse continued to speak out against Trump and intimated he may leave the Republican Party.

The arguments continued into 2017. Trump attacked the athletic Senator on Twitter saying he looked more like a "gym rat" than a Senator while Sasse wrote some pretty harsh op-eds about Trump and went on a talk show circuit to promote a book. He would say things such as that he thought about leaving the Republican Party "every day." Some thought he was prepared to walk away from political life altogether after one Senate term because of his many problems with Trump while others thought (or hoped) he was setting the groundwork for either a primary challenge to Trump or even a bold Independent bid for the Presidency. Later on, Sasse would say that he continued to have a dialogue with Trump privately and was able to smooth some matters over with him behind the scenes.

Many in the Nebraska Republican Party were not happy that their Senator had become such a visible "NeverTrumper" and symbolic steps were made to punish him. Even as Trump critics on the left were saying that Sasse was more talk than action, because he continued to vote for the most part in agreement with bills supported by the White House, others thought he could face a serious primary challenge.

Suddenly, Sasse once an active Tweeter, stopped posting on social media altogether and virtually stopped criticizing Trump as well. Many people wondered just what had happened and others mused about him being placed by Senate leaders in the "primary protection program." The Senator maintained that being off Twitter for an extended time would be good for him both as a Senator and a person.

Even as some other Senators would come to criticize Trump on matters related to Russia, Sasse took on a new tone in which he seemed to give the current President all sorts of benefits of the doubt, and he joined all but one GOP Senate colleague in voting to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial.

Some time earlier, Trump Tweeted his endorsement of Sasse's reelection and in the May primary, the incumbent defeated businessman Matt Innis 75-25. That sort of margin makes me think that Sasse would have still somehow held on to capture renomination even if he had not given up his criticism of Trump. Nonetheless, the strategy of laying low for several months obviously worked.

In Nebraska, victory in the Republican primary is close to being akin to a general election statewide win. Nonetheless, a crowded field of little known Democrats competed this year. Chris Janicek, a small businessman who had finished a distant second in a 2018 U.S. Senate primary, was the winner with 31 percent. Finishing in second place with 24 percent was mental health advocate Angie Phillips.

Janicek was not given much of a shot against Sasse from the outset. By June though, the party was calling for him to exit the race altogether after it was revealed that he had made some sexually inappropriate remarks via text about a female campaign staffer. It was also alleged that the Democrats' nominee had used a racist slur twenty years ago. The state party called for him to drop out and said it would end all efforts to assist his campaign. Janicek conceded he had "flaws" among them being a "big mouth" and a "joker", but maintained he won the primary fair and square and resented being called upon to quit, comparing it to "bullying." If he would not leave, there was not anything Democrats could do. They did go ahead and said that if he did quit, they would replace him with Alisha Shelton, an African-American mental health counselor who had finished third in the primary with 23 percent of the vote. Apparently, the silver medal primary finisher, also with the mental health background, was not considered. Irregardless, Janicek is refusing to exit the race, the party has thrown in the towel for him, many Democrats have said they will write in Shelton regardless.

So, with Sasse's reelection all but reassured, he has recently started to wade carefully into the realm of conservative anti-Trumpism again. He referred recently to Trump executive orders as "unconstitutional slop." To be expected, Trump fired back on Twitter, calling Sasse a RINO and saying that he needed his endorsement for reelection and now was betraying him by going "rogue again." Sasse tried to de-escalate things by first claiming he never asked for Trump's endorsement and saying that he would prefer to keep their disagreement out of the public sphere, as they had done for a while.

In voting to acquit Trump of charges in the Senate earlier this year, Sasse said what some other Republicans had which was basically a message of "let the voters decide." It is worth noting that Sasse is one of the few Republican Members of Congress who have not gone on the record with an endorsement of Trump's reelection. He will probably be asked to explain his intent more clearly, but he will likely try to dance around the issue. I think it is clear though that now that he has taken the steps necessary (though much of it was luck or out of his own control), Sasse will once again be a critic of Trumpism, especially if the incumbent loses reelection. It is possible that the Nebraskan will join a crowded 2024 Presidential primary field and be one of the few who can say, "I told you so", while others, who would be otherwise inclined to look to him will also ask just why he clammed up in the first place when the going got tough.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

9 D (3 Safe, 1 Likely, 3 Lean, 2 Tossup) 
12 R (3 Safe, 4 Likely, 3 Lean, 2 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:

44 Democrats (35 holdovers, 3 Safe, 1 Likely, 3 Lean, 2 Tossup)
42 Republicans (30 holdovers, 3 Safe, 4 Likely, 3 Lean, 2 Tossup)


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