WASHINGTON — The Tea Party scored a win in Nebraska on Tuesday as university president Ben Sasse captured the Republican nomination for 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 Senator 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, Republican of Kentucky.
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Chris Chocola said Sasse built his campaign ‘‘on the simple idea that Obamacare is a disaster that needs to be repealed.”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 Obama’s second term, with Republicans expected to hold the House and cautiously optimistic about winning control of the Senate, where the GOP needs to net six seats to grab the majority.
In West Virginia, Republican Representative 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, a seven-term congresswoman and daughter of former governor Arch Moore, and Tennant, the state’s secretary of state, will vie to replace Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, who is not seeking reelection after 30 years in the position.
West Virginia has become increasingly Republican, and Capito enters 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 Senator Mike Johanns, who is retiring after a single six-year term.
Sasse has focused on his conservative credentials, opposition to abortion, and support for gun rights, and the 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 the Tea Party movement, he stood out from some of its past candidates. He was an assistant secretary in the Health and Human Services Department in President George W. Bush’s administration.
Outside groups and the candidates have spent millions of dollars on the race in which the GOP winner is widely expected to prevail in November; Obama won just 38 percent of the vote in Nebraska in 2012. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s campaign arm, remained neutral.
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. In upcoming primaries, its chances to upset incumbents have been diminishing in Kentucky, Kansas, Idaho, and Mississippi.
The Republican establishment has a love-hate relationship with the movement. The GOP welcomed the energy that led to its control of the House in the 2010 elections, but blames it for less-than-viable 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 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 Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican, 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
Capito’s planned departure from the House created a messy GOP primary in her Second Congressional District.
Alex Mooney, the former chairman of the Maryland GOP who moved to West Virginia, captured the nomination in a seven-candidate race and will face Democrat Nick Casey, the former state party chairman of West Virginia, in the fall.