CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The chairman of this state’s Republican Party suggested Wednesday that Sen. Ben Sasse, who has gained national prominence as a critic of Donald Trump, isn’t welcome in Iowa—two weeks before the Nebraska Republican is scheduled to keynote a local party dinner in his first visit here since Trump was elected president.
In an extraordinary and seemingly unprovoked attack, Jeff Kaufmann lashed out at Sasse on Wednesday evening—first from the stage of Trump’s campaign-style event here in eastern Iowa, and again in an interview with POLITICO following the event.
Stepping to the podium inside U.S. Cellular Arena as a warm-up act for the president, a visibly chafed Kaufmann announced that he needed to get some things off his chest and proceeded to spend most of his time berating the president’s critics in the media and on the left. It was in a brief rebuke of the so-called Never-Trumpers, however, that the Iowa GOP chairman singled out Sasse.
“We had Sen. Ben Sasse from Nebraska, he crosses the Missouri River, and in that sanctimonious tone talks about what he doesn’t like about Donald Trump,” Kaufmann said. “You know what, Sen. Sasse? I really don’t care what you like. We love Donald Trump. And if you don’t love him, I suggest you stay on your side of the Missouri River.”
Sasse came to Iowa last January, in the run-up to the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, and grabbed headlines by campaigning alongside three Republican candidates—Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina—as a demonstration of his commitment to defeating Trump. The Nebraska senator mocked the reality TV star’s understanding of the Constitution and questioned his morality, among other stinging attacks that elevated him as a leading voice in the Never Trump movement.
Sasse continued his criticisms of Trump even after he won the nomination and the presidency, but his dissent has become noticeably less acerbic—making it all the stranger that Kaufmann would choose to resurrect their feud at a moment when divisions in the Republican Party are threatening to cripple the president’s legislative agenda.
In an interview after Trump’s speech, Kaufmann acknowledged that his anger with Sasse had been bottled up since the pre-caucus period last year and said the senator had done nothing specific recently to aggravate him. That said, Kaufmann repeatedly cited Sasse’s “tone”—that of an intellectually superior Republican, he said, who treats Trump voters with “condescension”—as the source of his animus toward the senator.
“He’s an arrogant academic,” Kaufmann said of Sasse, a former college president. “He’s sanctimonious. His statements are geared toward what can help him. He’s arrogant. And he’s not a team player, when in reality the only reason he’s got any clout at all in the Senate is because the Republican Party has the majority.”
Kaufmann paused, then added: “The most important thing to Ben Sasse is Ben Sasse.”
A spokesman for Sasse did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
The brutal intraparty attack is striking not just because the two Republicans are from neighboring states, but because Sasse himself is viewed as a potential candidate for the presidency someday—one whose path to the White House, due to his geographic and ideological profile, would run straight through Kaufmann’s backyard. It is precisely that scenario, Kaufmann said, that makes him question Sasse’s motives in criticizing Trump.
“I think this is all about him getting a name for himself,” Kaufmann said, adding that Sasse is “transparent about his superficiality.” Asked what makes Sasse different from other Republicans on Capitol Hill who have voiced displeasure with the president, Kaufmann replied, “Ben Sasse is gonna say that, because Ben Sasse is running for president in 2024.”
What about 2020, in a Republican primary versus Trump?
"He’s not that crazy,” Kaufmann said. “Nobody will be that crazy.”