LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — It's been a long summer for Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, the conservative Republican whose refusal to support GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has led to angry confrontations at local meetings, criticism from leaders in the state party and even death threats.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sasse acknowledged he's been lambasted by his party's most engaged voters and other politicians in his overwhelmingly conservative state but said he doesn't regret his decision to publicly oppose — and at times ridicule — the New York businessman.
"Lots of Nebraskans adhere to a lesser of two evils theory, and I completely understand and respect that," Sasse said. "But humbly, I think there's more to it than that... When you vote, you're saying that this person is an exemplar of the American system. You're saying this person has character. You're telling your kids that this person is a model of civic virtue, and that you hope to have more candidates like that in the future."
The first-term senator doesn't have many like-minded colleagues: Nebraska's other U.S. senator, Deb Fischer, has endorsed Trump, and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state's popular former governor, Dave Heineman, added their support at a raucous Omaha rally this summer. But supporters of Sasse point to his conservative principles and say he's not alone in his thoughts.
Sasse, a 44-year-old former college president who holds degrees from Harvard and Yale, argues Trump isn't a true conservative. When Trump's last GOP rival dropped out of the race, Sasse went so far as to argue on his Facebook page that "two dishonest liberals" were leading the national parties.
After Trump spoke in July with Republican senators in Washington, Sasse's spokesman quipped: "This election remains a dumpster fire. Nothing has changed."
Sasse declined to discuss the threats his office has received but said it reflects a breakdown in civil discourse. "We should never normalize this kind of stuff," he said.
He also said he isn't trying to pressure others, just speaking his conscience because he believes Trump would try to expand the executive branch's power.
"Nebraskans are much more comfortable with civil disagreement than finger in-the-wind pandering," he said.
It's that kind of talk that's angered Republican residents. Bob Warner, a GOP activist who voted for Sasse in 2014, has repeatedly called the senator's office to protest the senator's statements.
"What he personally thinks of Trump is his own business, but the people in his party supported Trump," the former city council member in Sasse's hometown of Fremont said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's telling the people that they don't know what they're doing."
Jill Woodward, of Omaha, likes Sasse but is disappointed in him as well.
"Donald Trump won our primary fair and square," Woodward said. "He might not have been everyone's first choice, but that's life. Let's stick together, be a party and support our candidate."
Sasse held a series of town hall meetings in Nebraska recently but didn't discuss his opposition with voters as he has to media outlets. He has said he wanted to keep his town hall events focused on policy issues.
"I wanted to know why he feels the way he does," said Jack Schreiner, who owns a rubber factory in Hastings and attended a town hall meeting in that city. "I'm not opposed to somebody having different views. But as a Republican, what are our options? Hillary?"
In suburban Omaha, Sasse refused to take questions about Trump until after a town hall meeting, prompting about 70 people to gather outside and pepper him about it. Sasse said the confrontation was organized by a small group of agitators who didn't speak for most of the attendees.
"The overwhelming number of people who want talk about the election talk about how distraught they are that we have two horrible candidates," he said.
Despite the backlash, it's unclear how much it ultimately hurt Sasse. He's not up for re-election until 2020, and supporters say many Nebraska Republicans share his misgivings. Trump received 61 percent of the vote in the state's May primary — even though all other candidates had dropped out of the race.
"Nebraska voters are pretty pragmatic, and I don't see them punishing Sasse," said Bryan Baumgart, a former Douglas County GOP chairman in Omaha. "There are a ton of Republicans here who support him and actually agree with him. He's kept every promise he has made, including sticking to his principles. Some may accuse him of abandoning the party, but he has supported all of the party's principles."
Former Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Mark Fahleson added that it would be hard for potential Republican primary challengers to position themselves as more conservative. In a state like Nebraska, the danger in a primary is to be portrayed as not conservative enough, and that's a tough argument to make against Sasse, who was elected with 64 percent of the vote in 2014.
"If you're a conservative Republican, he's doing a phenomenal job," Fahleson said. "If you're a Republican Party activist who has spent your life attending county Republican meetings and Republican conventions, then, yeah, you may be upset."
Many Republican activists are frustrated because Sasse benefited from the party's support when he was running for office but now doesn't want to help its presidential nominee, said Hal Daub, a former Nebraska congressman and Omaha Mayor. Daub endorsed Sasse's primary opponent, establishment favorite Shane Osborn, in 2014, but said he's more concerned now that Sasse's strong opposition to Trump will backfire.
"For my state and for his sake, what if Donald Trump is the next president?" Daub said. "We're really going to be welcome in the White House, aren't we?"
David Kramer, a former Nebraska GOP chairman who is now a national committeeman, agreed Sasse might not pay a high price and speculated Sasse might just be trying to make a name for himself nationally.
"I just think it's a risk for us, as a party, not to get behind the nominee," said Kramer, whose wife managed the campaign of one of Sasse's primary opponents. "I think that Sen. Sasse is playing a calculated game of being able to stand on the morning after the election if Trump loses and say, 'I told you so,' which I think he hopes will bolster his national reputation.
"I still don't know that that will resonate back here at home."
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