The Primary Election in North Carolina last week led to a war of memos and discussion of who won, who lost, and what it meant. A similar conversation is happening over the meaning of the results of the Nebraska Senate Primary, the media narrative of a supposed “GOP Civil War,” and how that narrative could be used to define Ben Sasse.
Media Narrative of Civil War
The media narrative of the supposed “Civil War” within the GOP is that the Tea Party won the Special Election Primary in FL19 with Curt Clawson, lost the US Senate Primary in North Carolina with Thom Tillis, and won the Nebraska Senate Primary with Ben Sasse. The reality is that the Sasse and Clawson races are more representative of a framework for ending the ‘war’ than they are manifestations of battlefield victories. These victories should be used as a road map to evaluate what happens when conservatives support good quality candidates with credible resumes, the ability to articulate a vision, and serious policy solutions. Conservative groups got behind good candidates early and supported leaders who could appeal to GOP Primary voters, donors, activists, leaders, and operatives across the establishment vs. anti-establishment spectrum. In the last two cycles, we saw what happened when anti-establishment candidates with questionable backgrounds or poor campaign skills were nominated in several states. In 2012, other states showed what happened when the establishment worked to manipulate the system to put forward equally flawed candidates who also fared poorly in General Elections in 2012.
The Lesson of the Florida 19 Primary
The lesson of Florida 19 was the strength of a credible candidate who could appeal to the more establishment-minded retired CEOs, executives, and more traditional Republicans in Southwest Florida with his CEO background, while also articulating Constitutional Conservatism to Tea Party voters and earning support from groups such as Tea Party Express. It is accurate that it was a victory for outsiders against the state Senate Majority Leader, but the more relevant story is Clawson’s success appealing to people across both the ideological spectrum and the establishment spectrum because of his strength as a candidate.
The Lesson of the Nebraska Senate Primary
It is easy for some people to say that Ben Sasse was expected to win this race because recent polling showed him leading. It is important, however, to point out where we came from. When Ben first announced, he was unknown in the state, had no significant endorsements, and most opinion leaders considered Shane Osborn the inevitable nominee. Ben was called a “long shot” and a “dark horse.” The first internal poll showed Ben Sasse trailing 40% to 3%. Ben Sasse ran a very strong campaign, with highly focused messaging on ObamaCare and the Constitution, high-tech tools that had been put to the test in Florida, and a solid grassroots operation that turned out the vote and built crowds that were arguably unprecedented in Nebraska. The lesson of this race is that it is not enough for constitutional conservatives to simply nominate candidates who hold true to Constitutional principles. We must also nominate candidates who have substantial credibility as candidates, can articulate a vision of what they believe, can propose real solutions to problems, and don’t make significant mistakes on the campaign trail. We need conservative candidates, but they must also be skilled candidates in order to win. Ben Sasse is nothing short of a phenomenal candidate. He can articulate the problems of America from a Constitutional perspective as well as anyone in the country. He understands policy better than most professional policy wonks. He is positioned on day one to be to ObamaCare in the Senate what Paul Ryan has been to budget issues in the House. Ben has shown the discipline to avoid controversial statements and silly mistakes. He has movie-casting looks, a beautiful and devoted family, significant experience in the business world and as a college president, and down-home connection to his state and community. To fully understand Ben, it is instructive to look at some of the criticisms he received in this campaign. Some folks on the establishment side of the divide have attacked Ben Sasse for his support from conservative groups. Some Tea Party folks criticized Ben for having worked in the Bush Administration. Both sides should look at Ben Sasse for whom he will be as a leader rather than try to wholly define him by the people who supported him or opposed him. They will find that they like Ben for who he is: a leader and Constitutional Conservative who will blaze his own trail with serious policy solutions. Voters in Nebraska got to know Ben Sasse on the merits and decided they liked him for who he is. After starting at 3% and running an excellent campaign, Ben Sasse was able to earn significant in-state support from organizations like the Nebraska Farm Bureau and leaders such as former Governor Kay Orr and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. These endorsements were certainly as relevant as any national support, and we chose to close the campaign with an ad highlighting them that was called “Nebraska Proud.”
The Establishment vs. Anti-Establishment Debate Was Relevant Yet Overplayed
Primaries are good for party building and they have been going on for a long time. The media should remember that when covering a supposed “Civil War.” 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; especially in terms of gaining momentum in the late winter and early Spring when he appeared on the cover of National Review.
If anything, public discussion over the displeasure of Senator McConnell at Ben Sasse receiving outside group support probably hardened conservative support for Ben, and the activities of an establishment-linked Super PAC backfired and made things unnecessarily worse. Conservatives will be thrilled with Ben Sasse as a US Senator if they are looking for a leader who will propose and fight for conservative solutions from a constitutional perspective, but they shouldn’t expect him to adopt an instinctual reaction of ‘no’; nor should they expect that he will go out of his way to annoy establishment GOP leaders. There are certainly times he will take them on as Senator Coburn did a decade ago over earmarks, but he will also choose his battles carefully.
Who Is Ben Sasse?
There has been much discussion as to who to compare Ben Sasse to politically. The easy thing to say is that Ben Sasse is the next Ben Sasse. But the best comparison is to Jack Kemp. Jack Kemp provided real ideas and real solutions to real problems. Ben Sasse is one of the few leaders who has proposed a detailed alternative to ObamaCare, and will likely propose additional detailed policy proposals over the course of the General Election and as a United States Senator. In Ben’s speech on Election Night he quoted Jack Kemp as saying:
In addition to proposing real policy solutions, Ben will also be in the Kemp mold of working to inspire the Republican Party and constitutional conservatives to better articulate our message of empowerment and opportunity for all Americans.
Key Strategic Decisions/Moments:
- Listening tour proved voters focused on real solutions . Ben held a Listening Tour last summer and that was where we figured out just how serious Nebraskans were, and that it was possible to run a campaign focused on constitutional governance and detailed policy proposals.
- Establishing viability early. Ben had to establish that he was a viable candidate early and show that he had strong local support. He did that by breaking a Nebraska fundraising record in the first quarter, raising $815,000. It was majority in-state money. A large part of that came from Ben going to the civic leaders of his hometown of Fremont and telling them that the only way he was running was if he had overwhelming financial support from his hometown. They came through in a big way. We never looked back.
- Long-form video and early TV that most campaigns avoid. The early strategic decision was made to spend resources on a long-form film fromFred Davis that captivated audiences and brought attention to Ben’s outsider message of changing the direction of Washington, DC by moving the capital to Nebraska. It worked perfectly. The decision was also made to go on TV in January at a time when no other campaigns were on the air. The goal was to define Ben as the one candidate who had read ObamaCare, knew how to deconstruct it, and had a plan for what comes next. It was clear that there would be a tradeoff in that the campaign would not be up on TV for another 10-12 weeks, but we believed this would ignite the grassroots and allow us to run a field operation with our anti-ObamaCare and Conservative Solutions town halls as the backbone.
- Decision to run a high-tech data-driven campaign. It’s easy to think of Ben as a university president, but really, he is a crisis management expert who is deeply interested in data. Ben mandated that the entire campaign integrate data at every level and make the information transparent up and down the campaign team. That drove us to invest early in technology that integrated information coming from every entry point on the campaign and aggressively expend resources to collect more data.
- Staff and volunteers who were inputting details about town hall attendees and doing pre- and post-attendance surveys used SignedApp for digital data entry at every event. There was no pen and paper sign up to atrophy information collection.
- We secured a robust voter file from i360 and conducted reams of survey calls that either broadly retrieved information about voter intent or more narrowly aimed to measure the change in a particular voter’s position after exposure to specific voter contact messages. This data was used as an aggregate to regularly tweak micro-messages and campaign tactics.
- We created an online activist portal in conjunction with our campaign data management tool, VRMHQ, that allowed Nebraska activists who wanted to help from home conduct ID work on their social media connections and distribute tailored campaign information to their personal contacts.
- We also aggressively sought to expand our footprint online through advertising and organic social media outreach. Our online advertising campaign was built around moving longer form content in addition to just augmenting media buys. We promoted two major 5 minute plus online films, and we ran many highly segmented mini c ampaigns to reach custom audiences on issues we knew were important to them using a mix of behavioral targeting and self managed online audience data that had been customized based on our offline ID and field work. We found this model specifically effective when using it to hone in on audiences our IVR survey work revealed had holes. For example, during a period where the campaign was not running ads on cable or broadcast, we used a large influx of targeted online video to increase our vote share among specific demographics who had been impacted by the opposing campaigns’ media strategies.
- We did some things that have never before been done in Nebraska, and our strategies were aimed at addressing some of the GOP tech failures of 2012.
- ObamaCare Townhalls. Rather than run a typical campaign based on only going to diners or parades, or trying to curry favor with local party leaders, we decided instead to build our own crowds and go straight to voters. That’s exactly what we did, and it was key for us. With our 9.5-foot tall stack of ObamaCare regulations in the belly of our campaign RV, Ben crisscrossed Nebraska holding town hall meetings standing next to the stack of regulations. There he explained the bill with specifics, laid out his plan for what comes next, and talked about the Constitution. We would later find out that these town halls were the key to Ben getting the Farm Bureau endorsement.
- Farm Bureau. It is so hard to overstate the importance of the power of the Farm Bureau in Nebraska. This was only the second time ever that they have endorsed in a statewide primary. When we found out that Farm Bureau was endorsing Ben, they told us that so many of their county members had been to our town halls that when county organizations considered endorsement, their members were already with Ben.
The media narrative will be that the Tea Party defeated the establishment and constitutional conservatives won the “Civil War” in Nebraska, after a win in Florida 19, and a loss in North Carolina. Conservative groups such as Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth deserve substantial credit for their role in Nebraska, but the real story here is larger than that: The lesson here is about the power of constitutional conservatives getting behind strong candidates who can inspire Tea Party voters while still having a credible background and being able to articulate their positions and vision for their community, state, and country. All of us across the establishment vs. anti-establishment divide should agree that there is a path to common goals that lead to shared victory without compromising our conservative principles. This Primary might be perceived as a major battle in the “Civil War,” but as a metaphor it should be much closer to the end of the Cold War than the battle of Gettysburg.