#NESen: NR ordains Sasse the next big thing

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Published on January 09, 2014

Ben Sasse, a conservative college president running for the open Nebraska Senate seat, is featured on the cover of the new issue of National Review. And perhaps better for him than the cover is the title that goes with it:

pic_cover_012714

You might be asking yourself — hey, isn’t this just a Beltway/East Coast conservative media elite story? What can this do for a candidate who, at last sighting, was 30 points behind the GOP frontrunner?

Let me remind you of a bit of history, going back almost as far as my own days at NR. Not counting the series in which they covered conservative presidential candidates during the 2012 cycle, there aren’t that many candidates who make NR’s cover — let alone with words like “rising conservative star.”

Here are the last two, both of them Senate candidates in open-seat races to succeed Republicans: 

rubio

That is the September 7, 2009 issue. At that point, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio was down in every GOP primary poll by more than 20 points, and in some polls it was closer to 30 points. Within months, Rubio had pulled ahead and built up such a commanding lead that his opponent, the early frontrunner, had to bail out of the GOP primary. Today, Rubio is a senator.

Then there’s this one:

cruz

When this cover was published in October 2011, former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz was a longshot in his GOP primary against Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. PPP had him down 29 points a bit before this appeared. Today, Cruz is a senator.

Okay, but what exactly does a glowing NR cover do for a candidate like Cruz or Rubio or Sasse?

For his part — and I suppose as a candidate he has to say something like this — Sasse preferred to talk about the work he is doing on the ground when I spoke to him today. “We’ve just been working the ground hard in Nebraska, and we expect to keep doing the same thing…This isn’t about me…”

But he did note: “I’m humbled and honored even to be mentioned in the same breath with two guys who fight so hard for the conservative movement.” He went on to give a very detailed account of his concerns for the future of Obamacare and conservatism, about which I’ll have a bit more later.

But back to the cover — not all conservatives subscribe to NR, obviously. The magazine’s Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat matters, but to whom?

First, you’re going to have the broader population of conservatives who don’t always read NR but generally trust the editors’ judgment. If you want to know who the conservative in the race is, you can check with groups that a lot of people don’t know much about (Senate Conservatives’ Fund, Club for Growth, FreedomWorks) or you can check National Review, which after so many decades everyone’s heard of. 

This will simply put Sasse on the radar for a lot of people who might instead be thinking about other issues or races with higher profiles — such as the many challenges to Democratic senators this year, many of which feature Republican primaries as well. As any author will tell you, publicity matters all on its own, a lot more than you’d think. 

To some degree — and I’d be careful about overestimating this — the NR cover will help raise Sasse’s profile within Nebraska. People don’t vote for people they’ve never heard of, and our early poll of the race showed Sasse with very little name recognition. But primary electorates are famously volatile — just ask Cruz, Rubio, or Rand Paul, who were all underdogs. The more important boost to name recognition will come if and when Sasse’s campaign spends some of its cash to make sure every GOP primary voter in the state is aware of it. 

But back to money for a second. Most insurgents — especially those who have never held elected office — get their hands on serious campaign cash only after they raise their profile with the conservative grassroots. Even after that, they tend to struggle throughout their campaigns to get the big donations. Sasse is different because he’s already done the hard part. In the Third Quarter of 2013, he raised a state record of $815,000 nearly all of it from about 400 donors — mostly people in Nebraska (the source of more than half his money) and in the financial world from which he came. Less than $5,000 of his entire fundraising haul came from small-dollar grassroots donors (that is, people who give less than $200).

That leaves an enormous and completely untapped reservoir out there of conservative small-dollar donors, inside and outside the state. Neither Sasse nor his chief rival, former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, has done much of anything to tap that well yet (as of October, Osborn had raised just $16,000 of his $570,000 haul from small donations). But when the two start competing for that money, the guy featured on the cover of NR as the Obamacare-slayer has an easy avenue with which to appeal to those small donors via online and direct-mail fundraising pitches — just send them a mail piece or an email featuring that cover.

There’s an added and more complicated element to this story because of the ongoing GOP civil war. By courting and winning the endorsement of the Senate Conservatives’ Fund, Sasse aroused the ire of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The upside for Sasse is that they gave him more than $100,000 directly last quarter and laid aside a similar amount for independent expenditures on his behalf. The downside is that McConnell has tried to squelch Sasse’s fundraising and to turn donors toward Osborn (a fact first reported in National Review). This cover will make McConnell’s task more difficult.

None of this means Sasse will win on May 13 — he’s far behind, lacks name recognition, and has a very problematic relationship with the national party bosses. But he will now surely have more cash than he needs and (between paid and earned media) enough name-recognition to run a competitive race. The rest is on the candidate himself.

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