Sasse’s Fuel and Fire

Sasse electionBen Sasse blew away the competition in the Nebraska U.S. Senate race last night. He nearly doubled matched the vote total of all of his opponents and will cruise to victory over Democrat Dave Domina in November.

So how did the unknown Sasse drive his RV to such a huge victory?


Credit has to be given first to the candidate and his campaign. From the start, everyone who we talked to noted that Sasse was a smart person and a smart campaigner. He never went off message. Ever.

You will note that the knocks at Sasse all came from speeches he gave prior to being a candidate.

But while a candidate? It was all “We must replace ObamaCare.” “We must first secure the border.”

There were zero cracks in his message.

Then there was his campaign ground game. You can read the personal assessment of this in a memo from the campaign’s two Michigan consultants, John Yob and Jordan Gehrke. In it they talk about their grassroots plan, townhalls, digital strategy and longform videos. Those were all very important factors in Sasse’s victory.

But a curious note in the summary is about the “Independent Expenditures” — except they are not referred to as that:

Support from Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth, Citizens United, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Sarah Palin, Tea Party Express, and other conservative groups was critical to winning;


Yes, the “support” was critical.
“Support” in terms of TWO and a HALF MILLION DOLLARS in Independent Expenditures was critical.

Support, where those outside groups tore Shane Osborn and Sid Dinsdale extra orifices did help just a tad for Sasse. Support that, because they were independent expenditures, Sasse was able to deny any association with.

Though we can’t blame the consultants for wanting to spin things their direction. On this day after the election more than one Tea Party org wants to take credit. Political writer Molly Ball has a better handle on it, when she talks about the fact that Sasse wasn’t as much a Tea Party candidate, as he was simply a strong candidate — stronger than the other three.

Sasse wasn’t any more Tea Party than Shane Osborn was. But Sasse was absolutely a better candidate.


When we talk about the Undecideds above, they were there. But after the negative campaigns waged by those noted “Support” groups, the Undecideds weren’t going to turn towards Osborn and Dinsdale.

Of course Osborn and Dinsdale brought much of that upon themselves and the billionaire groups just jumped at it.

As Sasse was gaining ground — with the question of whether Osborn should have killed himself and his crew instead of landing his plane in China, which he showed was within accepted Navy practices — Osborn fudged up royally.

Osborn had the past 13 years to get some sort of official document that showed landing his Navy plane in China was within Navy rules. Instead, he made a ham-fisted, last second grab at a something, and tried to pass it off as official.

Was this entirely his fault? Possibly not. It is possible he did not even realize that it was less than up and up. But if he didn’t know, he SHOULD have.

Osborn had to know that the question of ditching was going to come up in a hard-ball campaign at some point. Especially considering that Osborn made the Hainan Incident the #1 issue at the beginning of his campaign.

As it turned out he, and his campaign, had no defense plan.

And then when he tried to make one up on the fly, he crushed his campaign.
And if there was any doubt, the final “Dishonorable” ad — not put out by the Sasse campaign (wink-wink) — was the dagger to end it.


So could Sid Dinsdale shoot the “Deb Fischer” gap?

Well, remember all of those negative ads against Deb Fischer at the end of her race?
Well that’s because there weren’t any.

Sid Dinsdale got defined by his opponent before he could go that route.
He was another imperfect candidate, in more ways that one. Yes, he had contributed to Democrats. Yes, he made his statement — during the campaign — about the debt ceiling. Yes there was the Dodd-Frank questions.

All of these were potentially minor, or could be explained away — unless there were a million bucks in ads pounding away at you.

And there was a nagging question for Dinsdale: Why did he want to go to Washington? Bored with business? Was there something specific to fix? His “government overreach” theme wasn’t that different from Sasse’s anti-ObamaCare theme — but Sasse’s message was very specific. Sid’s was generic, and not something you could deliver in an elevator speech.


And again, who was hammering Sasse all that time? Osborn?
Well, with some ObamaCare stuff that never really stuck. (And delivered personally by Osborn, which probably also backfired on him.)

Sure Sasse’s previous ObamaCare work had some cracks with the “good first step” and his work with some pro-ObamaCare groups. But his entire campaign build-up was that he was the “anti-ObamaCare” guy. And though he gave some nuances in his speeches, no voter ever said, “he’s pro-ObamaCare.”

A way Sasse could have been hit would have been that he wanted to implement “ObamaCare light”. Or that “SasseCare would put us down the same road…” or blah blah blah. Heck, we saw at least two harsh critiques of Sasse’s replacement plan. Do you think that $2M in negative ads on that wouldn’t have put a dent in Sasse — maybe even grinding down his main campaign point?

But who was going to do that?
Osborn didn’t have the cash.
And Dinsdale refused to go negative.


So, while Sasse was a near perfect candidate who ran a near perfect campaign (save the creepy ad with his daughters), the money from the outside groups was suffocating the other candidates’ message.

You will hear and read a great deal about how groups united around him and Tea Party and Ted Cruz. And those had some effect. But without the buckets of cash bashing his opponents, he sure as heck wouldn’t have gotten to 49%.

Sasse had a very curious line during his victory speech:

“As you all became the fuel and the fire (of the campaign), national folks came and became honorary Nebraskans.”


Is that how that works?

Well, you can certainly set your opponents on fire with a million dollars.
All the while claiming you didn’t start it.


As we noted above, Sasse will blow out Democrat Dave Domina.

And we will look forward to seeing him represent Nebraska and hopefully making Nebraskans proud that they elected him.


Longtime readers here on Leavenworth St. will point out that we were arguing that the polls were much closer than the Sasse camp was claiming, particularly in the final days of the campaign.

True, but in our defense we did not account for:
1) the dismal showing by Bart McLeay;
2) Sasse sweeping up nearly all of the Undecided voters at the end.

Polls had been showing Sid Dinsdale as high as 27% near the end, though politicos were estimating that he would need at least half of the Undecideds to get close to Sasse. In the end, his base was not as high has estimated, and the Undecideds went en masse with Sasse.


  1. The Way I See It says:

    To your excellent analysis, I would add this point. SCF and like-minded groups really got a black eye in the 2012 cycle with the performance of their candidates in the general elections in Indiana and Missouri. It seems likely that none of their insurgent candidates will knock off a GOP incumbent Senator. So they badly needed a race in which they could claim victory, and Nebraska was it. They worked hard to paint Osborn as the “Establishment” candidate, even though on some issues (immigration being one) Osborn’s conservative credentials were actually superior. But when they managed to turn Freedomworks from Osborn to Sasse the narrative went from it being an “intra-Tea-Party” battle to “Establishment” versus “Tea Party.”

    Then Osborn got a really unlucky break when Graham’s comment to Breitbart got morphed into an endorsement by him and McCain. So Osborn had the worst of all worlds. He never actually got any money or support from their PACs but he was stuck with their “endorsement.” What little help he got from third parties was the Freedom Pioneers web ads, and the one that included the brief clip of Sasse’s daughters was more harm than help.

  2. Some other thoughts says:

    When Dinsdale and Osborn had the mic, they didn’t say anything. Nebraskans needed vision, and Sasse gave them vision and specifics. I think the endorsements helped Sasse, but he would have won (not with 50%) if no negative attacks aired. Here are some thoughts.

    Osborn’s problems: I think Osborn had some bad breaks, but he also had a horribly run campaign. He wasn’t a bad candidate, but had a bad strategy.
    Questions about ditching the plane (ultimately this isn’t a big deal and was pretty easily dismissed) BUT he put out a unofficial document so looks like he hiding something. I think this is why FreedomWorks ultimately changes their endorsement. Like a previous poster, Tea Party groups needed a winner and Osborn wasn’t going to do it, so FW bailed.
    Glenn Beck endorses both Sasse and Osborn which is great, but then Osborn has a townhall with Grover Norquist and brags about it to Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck pulls support. Norquist tax policies are fine which is what Osborn was discussing, BUT other stuff about Norquist is not okay.
    Losing endorsement battle so Osborn touts his endorsements of economists who didn’t actually endorse him. Plus has group of 25 people endorse him saying that is more important than national groups…I think this actually backfired completely. When did Sasse’s grassroots take off? Right about the same time Osborn said he had all the grassroots in Nebraska. It gave Sasse’s local armies a common enemy. Beat Osborn’s supposed grassroots was the unspoken mission.
    Osborn starts losing momentum so started saying Sasse loves Obamacare and kept going with it even when it didn’t stick. Made him look desperate.
    Sold hard his military career for 75% of the campaign…didn’t have much else to say. In today’s climate, you have to have a vision or ideas. Osborn didn’t

    Dinsdale had other problems.
    Donating $1.3 to your own campaign will not play well with Nebraskans. He probably still could have overcome it, but when he had the spotlight, what did he do???? Exactly what Osborn did. Start talking about how bad Sasse was. He was more passive aggressive, but playing a victim on the RedState stuff only worked for a few days. After that, people wanted to know what he had to say…he was not at all prepared for that. The plagiarism was another sign that he had nothing to say. In the end, he didn’t create any reason for someone to vote for him.

    Both Osborn and Dinsdale had opportunities and the spotlight and when they were in front of it, they had nothing to say. When Sasse was attacked and he was attacked for months and months, he addressed it, never played victim, and used it as a platform to talk about his ideas or message. I don’t think negative ads played as much of a roll as others do. I think Nebraskans see past it and Sasse treated them intelligent enough to see through what others said about him. My father always told me when when somebody says something bad about you, live in such a way as though nobody will believe it. Dinsdale and Osborn had no message to counteract any negatives that were bound to come up.

    Still think Sasse wins without any outside attacks.

  3. Interested Observer says:

    Street Sweeper, brilliant piece! I agree on every point. The “TEA Party” type groups wanted a win, any win, so desperately, they gave this particular race and this particular candidate everything it took to win. THAT’S what an extra few million dollars of opponent bashing can do.

    Brilliant piece!

  4. Grassroots Still Matters says:

    In most primaries across this country the grassroots or worker bees are the most important asset to any campaign. And Nebraska is no different. For all the handwringing about outside money and influence, there seems to be a fact that is being overlooked. Conservative grassroots actually like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, & Sarah Plain. Some look to the Club for Growth and SCF for guidance….even in Nebraska. So the fact that Sasse received all their endorsements should have tipped one off that Sasse was gonna to be a force to be dealt with.. In most states where the Tea Party candidate loses, they are split among several candidates. Not in Nebraska. They all coalesced behind one candidate. So while money may have widened the margins, Sasse would have more then likely won without it, just as Deb did. Worker bees matter.

  5. Interested Observer says:

    Sweeper, it just occurred to me that maybe the “TEA Party” type groups specifically targeted this Nebraska Senate race partially because it was so extremely cost effective for them. Maybe the media buys are cheaper here than in major markets. Maybe they felt that they would have to sway the fewest number of people to swing the election, in order for them to be able to take credit for the win. Here it took only a few million dollars, while in a much larger population state, it might have taken many tens of millions to get a win and accomplish the same thing. Even then, a win is a win for them, regardless of the size or prominence of said win.

    It’s interesting that I originally thought that those groups were simply “using” Sasse for their own benefit, until I realized that, apparently, Sasse was also “using” those groups in the same way. The groups needed a puppet candidate to back and Sasse needed backers to supply his promotions.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Interesting that soon to be Senator Sasse gave a shout-out to the national groups becoming honorary Nebraskans in his victory speech. That is acknowledging their role so they can run with it and squeal in the media, “see even Sasse says we were a big help.” Wonder how this relationship will evolve once he heads back to DC. Not a word from the national Tea Party groups about Sasse’s 11th hour comment that he would support McConnell? They needed the win and they knew he needed to say that. Those national celebrity endorsements were probably lined up in the infancy of the Sasse campaign. The people helping him aren’t stupid, they meted those endorsements out in a timely fashion toward the end but you can bet they were secured early on in addition to the national groups’ support. I was appalled that Osborn didn’t fight back on the veteran-bashing ad. Seems an ad with dozens of vets standing behind him would have been all that was needed to counter the bashing. I think not to address that was a big mistake and a turning point. The old adage, “an attack lodged and not countered is an attack believed” or something to that effect comes to mind here. Also seems that Sasse became the teflon candidate. Nothing stuck on him. How difficult would it have been for someone to stress that he has only voted in Nebraska twice in his adult life but wanted to be the next U.S. Senator? Dinsdale hammered his own Nebraska street cred but never went directly after the coincidental nature of Sasse just happening to move back less than five years ago and not having lived here in forever. This is reminiscent of Chuck Hagel’s sweep in from Virginia to take the Senate seat and then we never saw his family again. Hoping Sasse proves me wrong and we see he and his family here as much as we did during the campaign.

  7. P says:

    The fact that there was so much question early on about which one was the “tea party” guy and which was the “establishment” guy shows you that the biggest difference between the two factions isn’t on position but rather on strategy and political grandstanding. One group is interested in leading the country and winning national elections to build a majority and make things better. The other seems to be more interested in winning primaries and shouting as loud as they can “look at me! look at me! I’m a real conservative!” In the end, what matters is whether or not you can advance conservative policies through leadership. I hope Sasse is able to do that. The conservative movement needs smart leaders who know how to win not just yell.

  8. Drew says:

    Streetsweeper is not far off but Osborn campaign made way too many assumptions. Just because you were state treasurer and have name recognition is not enough to win the election. It did not work for Josh Mandel (a veteran), Robert Mourdock or Don Stenberg. In addition, if you are shuttling small kids between a wife and an ex wife who hates you, you have to demonstrate superior time management skills.

    Douglas County arrogance also played a role. Seriously, if you are going to run a conservative campaign, you better go off and hoofing it in the panhandle. Yeah, you think you know the state for driving the whole length of I-80 at 75 but you really do not experience the depth of Nebraska until you take those county roads at 60, and perhaps get a few speeding tickets on the way.

    Finally, the local tea party activists managed to lose touch with the overall picture of what was going on, online. The tea party grew beyond the regular protest and was contributing to all those “outside” groups. No one is going to tell anyone about that. Not the World Herald. Not Nebraska Watchdog. NOBODY!

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