OMAHA, Neb. – When Ben Sasse heard that GOP activists in Nebraska were primed to censure him for insufficiently supporting Donald Trump, the Republican senator didn't try to talk them out it. Instead, he punched first.
In a five-minute video posted to Facebook and YouTube, Sasse ripped fellow Republicans for following a “cult of personality" and “acting like politics is religion.”
It's the no-apologies approach Nebraskans have come to expect — and even appreciate — from their junior senator, who perhaps more than any other rising Republican leader is cultivating anti-Trumpism as his brand.
Sasse has said Trump's claims of election fraud were “lies” and that Trump “riled a mob that attacked the Capitol” on Jan. 6, when Congress was voting to affirm Joe Biden's election victory. Sasse is among the small group of Republicans considered most likely to vote to convict Trump on the charge of inciting an insurrection when the Senate impeachment trial concludes.
Sasse's criticism of Trump is angering plenty of activists in deeply Republican Nebraska. But Sasse is also winning some respect for speaking his mind even when it's unpopular, a trait that some Republicans said reminded them of the former president himself.
“I’d rather have him say what he’s seeing and what he’s thinking,” said Tracy Fackler, an Omaha auto repair shop owner, who like many across the state said he voted for Trump for much the same reason.
Sasse, who was elected to a second six-year term last year, does not have to worry much about the consequences of his anti-Trump campaign in a state that Trump won by 18 percentage points in November. Sasse's more immediate risk is how his votes on impeachment will go over with Republicans if he were to run for president in 2024.
Of the small number of Republican senators who've sided with Democrats on impeachment, only the 48-year-old Sasse is viewed as still aspiring to higher office. He is, in effect, betting there's a political future in trying to fight for the comeback of the establishment Republican party.
“We still agree on some big things,” he said in his video, pointing to values his party often promoted before Trump. “Rule of law. Constitutionalism. Limited government.”
Even in Nebraska, Sasse has some reason to think there's a market for what he's selling.
He won almost 27,000 more votes than Trump in the state, proving better at holding on to wayward GOP voters and winning over Democrats. Twenty-one percent of Nebraska Democrats backed Sasse while just 4% supported Trump, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate. Meanwhile, 7% of Republicans voted for Biden, while 3% of Republicans voted for Sasse's challenger, Democrat Chris Janicek.
Sasse benefited from a scandal that befell Janicek. But the incumbent also showed strength in swing-voting neighborhoods of suburban Omaha, places that resemble those presidential battleground-state suburbs where Trump lost ground last year.
“I think he’s just a man who stands up for common principles and values, and doesn’t go along with Trump,” said Mike Lewis, a 56-year-old real estate agent from south Omaha and a registered Democrat for 30 years who calls himself a moderate. “I believe he is a man of morals and principles, and not party lines.”
It's a diverse, older, first-ring suburb of neighborhoods and small businesses — not unlike pockets of working- and middle-class voters just outside Milwaukee, or St. Paul, Minn. Omaha’s once-thriving stockyards are just a mile to the east and steam rises overhead from Nebraska Beef and other smaller meatpackers.
Scraping ice off his sidewalk a few blocks away, Fackler also praised Sasse for “speaking his piece.”
“It wasn't popular what he said because of the way he said it. Everyone else just pussyfoots around, and he just told it like it was," said Fackler, adding that he had been an infrequent voter until Sasse ran in 2014 and Trump two years later. “When you take on the party, you're going to take a lot of criticism."
A block away, Leah Fontenelle braved the single digits on her front stoop to side with Fackler.
“I would rather have someone speak his mind than just bow to the party,” said the 65-year-old retired medical supply director who voted for Trump. “The party doesn’t speak for everyone.”
But its elected officials should represent the party's views, said Kolene Woodward.
More than 450 miles west, the Scotts Bluff County GOP chair had grown furious with Sasse by mid-January after the senator said Trump had “consistently lied by claiming that he ‘won the election by a landslide''' and that the then-president was “derelict in his duty to defend the Constitution and uphold the rule of law” during the Capitol siege.
“He’s made such a public spectacle of his hatred for President Trump. And that’s not the way Nebraska feels,” Woodward said. She described Sasse as “Oh, just so disrespectful to the former president."
Three other county GOP committees have voted to censure Sasse. The state Republican central committee is expected to consider at least eight separate resolutions to censure him when it meets next month.
Several other Republicans have faced similar scolding at home, including Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Fred Upton of Michigan and Tom Rice of South Carolina.
Sasse's criticism of Trump isn't the only complaint Republicans have against the senator. Some Republicans grumble about his professorial style. Sasse has degrees from Harvard and Yale, and later was president of Midland University, a Christian school in eastern Nebraska.) Critics also say that in his six years in office, Sasse has not led on a marquee piece of legislation or regularly participated party fundraising.
During his 2014 campaign, Sasse said repeatedly that he identified more as a conservative than a Republican.
The sentiment came through in the video Sasse released Feb. 4. He cast angry state GOP committee members as out of step with not just some on the committee itself but with other Nebraska Republicans and, even more broadly, Nebraska voters.
Purging “Trump skeptics” would be “terrible for our party,” he said, and appealed for refocusing on shared conservative principles.
It’s a tack that could persuade Lewis, the self-described moderate Democrat, to back Sasse on the national stage.
“I don’t agree with him all the time,” Lewis said. “But I agree with his principles and willingness to speak his mind.”