Tea Party Challenger Wins Nebraska's GOP Senate Primary

In Tuesday's Senate primary in Nebraska, Ben Sasse, a university president and Tea Party favorite, beat former state treasurer Shane Osborn.

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A Republican primary in Nebraska should give new hope to the Tea Party movement. That's because a Tea Party favorite won. Ben Sasse is a university president. He beat a former State Treasurer who had the backing of the Republican establishment. And it's the establishment candidates who've winning so far this primary season.

For more analysis, NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us on the line. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So, Mara, last week after the last set of Republican primaries, we talked on this program with you about how this is the year the establishment fought back against the Tea Party and, as I've just said, won. So how does Nebraska fit into that narrative?

LIASSON: Well, I think it's the exception that proves the rule. Ben Sasse had the backing of Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin and the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. He beat two other candidates who had some local Tea Party support. One of them, as you said, was Shane Osborn who was backed by Mitch McConnell - he came in third. So you could say that's an embarrassing defeat for the establishment. But in Nebraska, the stakes were very low because whoever is the Republican nominee will be highly likely to hang on to the Republican Senate seat in the fall.

It's a little different in the primaries we're going to have next week in Georgia and Kentucky, possibly Mississippi, which could be more competitive general elections.

MONTAGNE: And we don't know yet obviously who will control the Senate next year. But what conclusions could we draw from the Republican primary so far?

LIASSON: Well, I think they'd tell us not only that the establishment has fought back with better candidates, better vetting, more money, but also that the lines have become blurred between Tea Party candidates and establishment candidates, that even if Tea Party candidates are losing these primaries, the Tea Party is winning the larger war because it's been hard on substance to tell the difference between these candidates.

These aren't battles about ideology but more on which candidate is better positioned to win in the fall. And no matter who controls the Senate in January, the ranks of Republicans in Congress next year are going to be more conservative than they are now. That's the exact same thing that happened in the last two election cycles - the Tea Party is moving the Republican Party to the right.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about one big issue: immigration reform, which is something that we heard about, both from John Boehner the House speaker and President Obama this week. I mean I thought that issue, honestly, was dead.

LIASSON: Well, it has seemed very dead. But there is an ongoing debate in the Republican Party about timing, when is the best time to try to do immigration reform. Some Republicans want to wait till next year when they hope to have the majority in the Senate, and then they'd have a stronger hand to start writing a new bill all over again. But others, like the speaker of the House, think that this year is still a possibility.

Tom Donohue, the very important head of the Chamber of Commerce, thinks this year is the year. And he made some pretty provocative comments the other day. Here they are.

TOM DONOHUE: If the Republicans don't do it, they shouldn't bother to run a candidate in 2016. Think about who the voters are.

LIASSON: Now, he said that just to get - he said to get everybody's attention, and it did. But Donohue, like many other Republican leaders, think that waiting till next year will be just too hard to start all over again on immigration reform. Not only will you have more conservative Republicans in Congress - potentially more anti-immigration reform votes - but you're also going to be in the midst of the Republican presidential primary, where the anti-amnesty grassroots sentiment holds a lot more sway.

And that, the pressures of losing the White House again because Republicans can't win the Hispanic vote might not be enough to overcome those sentiments.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, the president on all of this?

LIASSON: The president held an event on immigration reform yesterday with law enforcement officials. He's trying to keep the pressure on. He says the House only has a two to three month window to get this done. But if immigration does happen this year, maybe after the primary season or in a lame duck, it will because Republicans decide it's in their political interest - not because the president convinced them to do this.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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