His video ricocheted around the Republican universe on Thursday night and Friday not because it was critical of Trump — as Sasse and other traditionalists have been before — but because it so directly challenged Trump’s most ardent supporters.
They constitute a massive base of Republican voters, striking fear in many party officeholders. On the eve of Trump’s second impeachment trial — and even with the former president’s poll numbers within the GOP falling off slightly — Sasse remains an outlier in his willingness to denounce the president‘s false claims and other actions. That makes him a study in contrast with pro-Trumpers like Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, two other GOP presidential prospects who led Senate objections to Joe Biden’s victory.
With his unflinching video, the senator from one of the reddest states in the nation is testing the limits of never-Trumpism in a post-Trump world.
“He’s the first guy taking on the grassroots activists in his own party in his own state,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who worked to defeat Trump last year.
Sasse’s video, he said, was a “cold glass of water in people’s face, saying ‘the fever’s breaking.’”
The video took the form of a plainspoken response to members of the Nebraska Republican Party’s state central committee, who censured Sasse in 2016 for being insufficiently supportive of Trump — and who are considering several measures to censure him again later this month.
His act of defiance was a long time coming. Beginning in November, Sasse sharply criticized Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the presidential election. Last month, he called Hawley’s objection to certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory “really dumbass.” In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on the morning of the deadly riot at the Capitol, he lamented “a society-wide addiction to clickbait crack that treats politics like blood sport.” And in the aftermath of the insurrection, he put the blame squarely on Trump.
The result for Sasse — like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and other Republicans who have been critical of the president — was a fierce lashing from the base. Ryan Hamilton, the executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said the party has received eight separate resolutions to censure Sasse and has fielded thousands of phone calls, emails and other messages expressing frustration with Sasse since his vote last week to allow Trump’s impeachment trial to move forward.
At the state party’s offices, Hamilton said, “Our phone has been blowing up.”
Noting that Trump endorsed Sasse’s re-election bid despite their differences, Bruce Desautels, the Hitchcock County GOP chair, said Sasse “stabbed the president in the back.”
“The man is one of the most condescending, arrogant, narcissistic individuals I’ve ever had the unfortunate circumstance to deal with, to meet,” said Desautels, whose county party is holding an emergency meeting on Saturday to consider a resolution to censure Sasse. “He does not represent Republican values, as far as I’m concerned.”
In response to the discussion of a censure, Sasse began drafting a message, as he often does, on a stack of 3-inch by 5-inch index cards, according to an adviser. And when it came time to film, his media consultant, Fred Davis, said he told him he would have “Hollywood-ed it up a little bit,” or at least varied the angle of the shot.
Sasse didn’t want that. Instead, according to the adviser, he went to a studio in Washington on Thursday, sat in front of a single camera on a tripod and spoke directly to it for just over five minutes.
“He wrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it,” Davis said. “He really put a lot of thought into it.”
Acknowledging that Sasse’s decision not to over-produce the video was the right one, Davis said, “It’s just honest. It has no flourish. He’s just telling you what he’s thinking.”
The political peril of Sasse’s thinking is, at the moment, obvious. On the same day he released his video, just 11 Republican House members joined the vote to strip Marjorie Taylor Greene, the pro-Trump, conspiracy-peddling House member, of her committee assignments. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans, though down slightly from previous highs, still stands at about 80 percent.
In Nebraska, the retribution for crossing Trump was swift. In Scotts Bluff County, a Trump stronghold where GOP activists have already approved of censuring Sasse, Kolene Woodward, the county party chairwoman, said Sasse’s criticism of Trump was viewed not only as an indictment of Trump, but of Republicans loyal to him.
“He is repudiating an entire 75 million people who voted for Trump,” she said. “That is my problem with it … Those ideals, and those things we wanted, are still on the table.”
Mary Jane Truemper, president of the Omaha Liberty Ladies, a conservative women’s group, said the video was “tone deaf and condescending.” And Hal Daub, a former Republican congressman from Omaha, said that although he thinks censuring Sasse before he votes on the impeachment itself is “premature,” Sasse’s video “was just a little bit too much.”
One Republican strategist in Nebraska said that even if Sasse is anticipating a fall-off in support for Trump over the next four years, there is likely to remain a sliver of the presidential primary electorate that will view fealty to Trump as a litmus test. In a crowded primary, that could have potentially debilitating ramifications for Trump critics like Sasse.
Sasse’s political prospects rest on a longer view of the Republican Party — and an uncertain bet that eventually it will shift away from Trump. Sasse will not be up for re-election until 2026. And the presidential primary, despite early jockeying that is already underway, will not begin in earnest until after the midterm elections next year.
In addition, the party apparatus may not be as significant an obstacle to Sasse as headlines about censures might make it seem. The influence of state party operations has waned in recent years, a withering accelerated by the explosion of social media for messaging and small-dollar fundraising.
And the party is now more malleable than ever — more often reforming to reflect its candidates than bending them to its will. Trump was reviled by many state party officials before remaking the party in his image. Sasse himself defeated a party veteran who tried to primary him last year, defeating Matt Innis with 75 percent of the vote. Innis, a Trump loyalist, was a former chairman of the Republican Party in Lancaster County, Neb.
For the majority of Republicans — “people who aren’t political addicts” — said Ryan Horn, a Republican media strategist based in Omaha, “I think most conservative voters will look at that and give him credit for it.”
In November, Sasse won more votes in Nebraska than Trump. And between that and the video, Horn said, “I think it’s important what he did.”
“I think he’s demonstrating that if you have the voters on your side, then you don’t need to be intimidated by certain kinds of activists that want to do silly things like censure Cindy McCain in Arizona or censure Ben Sasse in Nebraska,” he said. “It’s almost like some of these people have gone out of their way to tarnish the most successful vote-getters.”