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Sasse campaigning with Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin in 2014

Will Ricketts Primary Sasse in 2020?

The political rise of Ben Sasse was meteoric and his (potential) fall could be equally swift. When Sasse announced for the U.S. Senate in 2013, he was a political newcomer and had only been a Nebraska resident for about four years. (He grew up in Nebraska but had spent most of his adult life in the metro areas of the northeast.)

Sasse parlayed his extensive Washington connections to line up support from billionaire super PACs and National Review. In his 2013–14 campaign, Sasse postured as the so-called “Obama Care nemesis” and fearlessly predicted that the Affordable Care Act would cause America to “cease to exist.” (Five years later, Sasse still hasn’t produced a replacement plan.)

The Fremont native’s primary campaign against then State Treasurer Shane Osborn and banker Sid Dinsdale was largely marked by a blizzard of dishonest billionaire financed super PAC ads aimed at trashing his GOP rivals. Sasse’s billionaire allies even went so far as to “swiftboat” Osborn by attacking his military service.

By the time his ugly (and winning) primary campaign ended, even Mike Johanns was troubled by it. As Johanns said: “ “People are sick of outside groups, they’re sick of the negative ads, they’re sick of the attacks, they’re just sick of the whole thing.” Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal Star sagely noted that: “The danger isn’t the uninformed voter but the misinformed voter.” Sasse went on to defeat Omaha lawyer Dave Domina in the general election.

Once Sasse returned to Washington, he slavishly voted the GOP party line with Mitch McConnell. While decrying partisanship and gridlock, Sasse voted to shut down the government and to delay Obama Administration nominees.

Since Trump has taken office, Sasse has largely voted to support his agenda. The junior Nebraska Senator voted for all of Trump’s cabinet picks, the deficit financed tax cuts for the rich and banking deregulation.

What has made Sasse stand out from most of his GOP Congressional colleagues is that on rare occasions he will mildly criticize Trump. Despite those mild rebukes, Sasse has done nothing in the legislative area to slow down or stop the Trump agenda.

Never Trump Republican columnist Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post said it best: “ We don’t suggest that Sasse stop tweeting. To the contrary, what’s needed is for him to match his fine rhetoric with deeds. If he wants to show he’s more than a tribalist with a witty Twitter feed, he needs to demand hearings on President Trump’s conflicts of interest and self-dealing, start opposing blatantly unqualified nominees and rebuke the president’s politicization of the Justice Department.”

The problem for Sasse’s political future is that it isn’t enough to vote with Trump the overwhelming majority of the time. GOP primary voters expect Republican members of Congress to refrain from criticizing Trump — even in the mildest terms.

Representative Martha Roby (R-Alabama) failed to win her primary and was forced into a run off against a Republican rival who ran on his fealty to Trump. Roby’s “sin” was to withdraw her support for Trump in 2016 after the release of the Access Hollywood tape that indicated that the former reality TV star had sexually assaulted several women.

In South Carolina, long time Republican elected official Representative Mark Sanford (R-SC) lost his House primary election because he called for the release of Trump’s tax returns, criticized his tariffs and said “facts don’t matter” for Trump. Interestingly enough, five years ago, Sanford was elected to the House after he had an affair on the taxpayer’s nickel and paid the highest ethics fine in the history of South Carolina politics. Apparently, that didn’t bother South Carolina Republicans.

What this portends for Sasse is that he is vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2020. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pete Ricketts took on Sasse in 2020. It is evident that Ricketts has aspirations for higher office. The billionaire governor has addressed both the CPAC and the NRA conventions. Moreover, Ricketts made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2006. (He lost to Ben Nelson by a 64% to 36% margin.)

A primary battle between Sasse and Ricketts in 2020 would be the equivalent of nuclear war. Both candidates would have access to unlimited campaign cash and super PAC support. It would be interesting — and ugly.

Ultimately, I believe that Ricketts has presidential aspirations. He is a billionaire and his family has ties to America’s richest right wingers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ricketts run for president in the 2024 cycle. Watch for it!

I’m a trial lawyer, a Democratic activist and a sports fan.

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