WASHINGTON — The tea party scored a win in Nebraska on Tuesday as university president Ben Sasse captured the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in a bitter race that highlighted the fissures within the GOP. Two women set the stage for history-making in West Virginia.
Sasse, who had the backing of outside conservative groups, Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz, grabbed 45 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Sid Dinsdale, the president of Pinnacle Bank, and 23 percent for former State Treasurer Shane Osborn.
For months, Sasse was locked in an increasingly negative race with Osborn, who had the support of the Washington establishment and allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
With little to celebrate to date, conservative groups immediately trumpeted Sasse's win.
"Ben Sasse won this race because he never stopped fighting for conservative principles," said Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins. Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said Sasse built his campaign "on the simple idea that Obamacare is a disaster that needs to be repealed."
Voters in Nebraska and West Virginia were deciding their lineups for the November elections in the latest round of spring primaries. The fall midterms will determine control of Congress for the last two years of President Barack Obama's second term, with Republicans expected to hold the House and cautiously optimistic about winning control of the Senate.
The GOP needs to net six seats to grab the majority
In West Virginia, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Natalie Tennant cruised to primary wins and will square off in a Senate showdown in November that will give the state its first female senator.
Capito is a seven-term congresswoman and daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore; Tennant the state's secretary of state. They are looking to replace Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring after 30 years.
West Virginia has become increasingly Republican, and Capito entered the general election contest as the heavy favorite. If elected, she would be the first Republican senator from West Virginia since 1959.
In Nebraska, Sasse, who heads Midland University, had the backing of the Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks in his bid to replace Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, who is retiring after a single six-year term.
Sasse has focused on his conservative credentials, opposition to abortion, support for gun rights and goal of repealing and replacing the health care law.
In one 30-second ad, Sasse's two young daughters, Alex and Corrie, talk about how much their dad opposes the Affordable Care Act. "He wants to destroy it," says one daughter. "He despises it," says the other.
While Sasse won over tea partyers, he offered voters some significant establishment credentials. He served as an assistant secretary in the Health and Human Services Department in President George W. Bush's administration, studied at Harvard and Yale, and was a visiting scholar in economics at the Brookings Institution.
Outside groups and the candidates have spent millions on the race in which the GOP winner is widely expected to prevail in November in a state where Obama won just 38 percent of the vote in 2012. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which had remained neutral, called Sasse a "problem-solver who will be a conservative voice" to repeal the health care law.
Trial lawyer Dave Domina defeated Larry Marvin in the Democratic primary.
The tea party has struggled this year as candidates have lost to establishment favorites in Texas, North Carolina and Ohio, and Nebraska stands as the insurgent movement's best remaining shot. Looking ahead to upcoming primaries, the tea party's chances to upset incumbents have been diminishing in Kentucky, Kansas, Idaho and Mississippi.
The Republican establishment has a love-hate relationship with the tea party. It welcomed the movement's energy that propelled the GOP to control of the House in the 2010 elections, but it blames tea partyers for less-than-viable general election candidates in 2010 and 2012 Senate races in Indiana, Colorado, Nevada and Delaware.
Republicans in the capital remain convinced they could have won control of the Senate if only their establishment candidates had won more primaries, and some in the party have been determined to defeat the movement's candidates this election.
In Nebraska's race for governor, Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts held a slight lead over Attorney General Jon Bruning. Term limits prevented Republican Gov. Dave Heineman from running again.
In West Virginia, Democratic names like Byrd and Rockefeller dominated politics for decades, but since 2000, the state has voted Republican in presidential elections. The transformation is widely expected to continue this fall as Republicans capitalize on voter antipathy toward Obama, who lost all of the state's 55 counties in 2012.
Capito's planned departure from the House created a messy GOP primary in her 2nd Congressional District that stretches across the state.
Alex Mooney, the former chairman of the Maryland GOP who moved to West Virginia, captured the nomination in a seven-candidate race and face Democrat Nick Casey, the former state party chairman of West Virginia, in the fall.
In his appeal to voters, Mooney's campaign said he moved to West Virginia to "live in freedom, and he'll fight Obama to preserve it."
One of the most endangered House Democrats is 19-term Rep. Nick Rahall, who easily won his primary and will face Democrat-turned-Republican Evan Jenkins in the fall.