RALLY: Republican Senate candidate Ben Sasse speaks at a rally in Omaha on Monday with Sen. Deb Fisher, R-Neb., right, and gubernatorial candidate Pete Ricketts, left.
By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – Ben Sasse’s father says his favorite childhood movie was “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.”
In the movie, Mr. Smith is a naïve, young idealist who arrives to find a corrupt Washington, but eventually he gathers the will to fight the machine and emerge a moral hero.
Sasse is young, patriotic and perhaps a bit idealistic, and he’s sure to find corruption when he arrives in Washington after his election to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. But he’s no hayseed, and is already being talked up as a future Republican leader.
Judy Booth of Fremont was brimming with excitement as she waited for Sasse to take the stage at his election night watch party.
“I have a feeling Ben will be a candidate for president some day,” Booth said. “He’s incredibly smart; he’s a solution-based thinker.”
Sasse returned to Fremont in 2009 and helped bring its Lutheran college back from the brink of bankruptcy.
“We’ve seen what he’s done with Midland (University),” Booth said. “He’s just a take-charge, proactive guy.”
A few steps away, a veteran political reporter watching Sasse’s election night party said he expects to see Sasse quickly become a leading GOP voice and run for president one day.
ELECTION NIGHT: The Sasse family, which traveled with the candidate throughout Nebraska on an RV, prepares for the primary election night watch party.
Before he even won the race, Sasse was christened a rising conservative star by the National Review and FOX News and praised by conservative talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Limbaugh praised Sasse’s ability to indict liberalism, and Hannity said of all the Senate candidates he’d interviewed, Sasse was “by far… the most impressive.”
He was stunned by Sasse’s lack of political experience, saying, “maybe that’s your greatest asset.”
“I am pleasantly shocked, and I don’t mean that to be insulting to the other people running — there’s some good people running,” Hannity said. “I think you will not only win your race but you will instantly become a leader of ideas and solutions in the Senate.”
Hannity’s producer, Lynda McLaughlin, went even further, calling Sasse a “rock star” and saying she wants him to run for president.
When Mitt Romney was in Nebraska stumping for Sasse, he was asked if he would run for president again.
“It’s more likely I’ll work for Ben some day,” he joked. “I’ll be his cabinet secretary.”
The Washington Times called Sasse “a former Bush administration health official who, analysts say, has both D.C. experience and outsider appeal to be a national voice.”
Sasse’s rise from obscurity to win a U.S. Senate seat has been meteoric: When he jumped in the race a year ago, he started with 3 percent name recognition. During his first fly-around the state, just a handful of people showed up at the Lincoln airport.
In the primary, he took on a wealthy banker who dropped $2.2 million on his campaign and a military hero with high name recognition, former State Treasurer Shane Osborn. Sasse stunned, walking away with more than twice as many votes as the runner-up.
People began to notice the young upstart with an Ivy League pedigree that trumps President Obama’s: He has five degrees, including a bachelor’s from Harvard and two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale. His first job out of college was working for the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm. He also taught politics at the University of Texas.
While he never held public office, he’s no outsider: He was a congressional page in high school and worked as a tutor to the page program while in grad school. He was assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush, chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy and briefly chief of staff for Congressman Jeff Fortenberry.
When he decided to run for the Senate, he took his young family of five on the road, campaigning in all 93 counties in an RV adorned with red Sasse signs. His campaign would call everyone they knew in a town and maybe get a dozen people to show up at his town hall meeting.
But by their third time through town, those crowds grew to about 45. By his last fly-around of the campaign, he was surrounded by supporters. And by Election Day, his war chest had swelled to more than $6 million, his campaign staff had grown to 17 and he delivered his acceptance speech with the help of Teleprompters.
Yes, he had a big war chest and lots of help from outside groups, but he thinks the key to his win was talking about Nebraskans’ “hopes and dreams” at town hall meetings all over the state. He was coined “Obamacare’s Cornhusker Nemesis” by the National Review as he lugged a 9-foot-tall pile of Obamacare implementing rules and regs to those town halls, calling for the health care law’s repeal and replacement with “real health care reform.” He proposed a lengthy alternative.
In the primary, his support from tea party groups got him tagged a tea partyer and “the next Ted Cruz,” but he didn’t seem comfortable with the label, saying he models himself more after Jack Kemp.
Still, he isn’t shy about taking Republicans to task, immediately putting himself on the hot seat by calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to show “actual leadership” on an Obamacare issue.
He often says, “We don’t think the problem is just that the Democrats are in charge, we think that it’s that too many Republicans want Washington, D.C., to be in charge.”
His platform is underscored by a belief that the federal government is not the solution to all problems.
“I want to fight for what I call a humble politics — a Washington that does fewer things, but does the more important things, more aggressively, more transparently, more urgently, with less screaming,” he says.
He eschews labels — call him a conservative and he asks, “What does conservative mean?”
“It’s not partisan, it’s believing in people,” he said, recounting a conversation with a Norfolk mechanic who said he didn’t know if it’s Republican, but “everybody here is conservative… and gets their crops in the ground on time.”
But he is conservative and an evangelical Christian “with lots of appreciation for the Lutheran and Reformist traditions.” Staunchly pro-life, he prayed outside of abortion clinics as a child, was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, supports the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and is eager to embark on entitlement reform.
And yet he took the unorthodox step of delivering a few sentences of his acceptance speech in Spanish, saying, “Friends, I believe in the American dream. Together we can create an environment in which all have more opportunities.”
This in a state where Gov. Dave Heineman got elected in 2006 by upsetting beloved Husker Coach Tom Osborne in the primary, largely by pushing a hot button immigration issue — opposing in-state tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants.
That’s why Sasse reached out to Hispanics, he said Wednesday.
“National reporters act like you either have to be for whatever liberal policy agenda there is in immigration reform or you can’t engage Hispanic people, and I think it’s a completely false choice,” he said. “When you’re on the porch in Schuyler or Lexington or south Omaha, that’s not the first topic people talk about… they talk about jobs, they talk about schools, they talk about family breakdown.”
He said he’ll continue to engage Hispanic communities, but not start the conversation with things that divide Americans, but things that unite us.
Still, he would oppose any attempt by President Obama to enact immigration reform through more executive orders.
“I sure hope he doesn’t do that,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious last night’s election nationwide is a repudiation of his unilateral actions and so to double down and do more of it rather than coming to talk to Congress I think would be tragic.”
Obama vowed to do just that Wednesday, saying illegal immigrants should be able to pay back taxes, pay a fine, learn English, go to the back of the line and get a pathway to citizenship.
Sasse believes the Republican Congress can get things done under Obama, recounting how President Ronald Reagan enacted tax reform with a Democratic Congress. He said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took away the rights of the minority and refused to consider 350 pieces of legislation passed by the House. He thinks Republicans in the Senate will restore rights to Democrats.
“Harry Reid got fired last night,” Sasse said. “He is the single most divisive guy in Washington.”
As for all this talk about whether he is presidential timber, he cautions, “I’ve never run for anything before in my life. I just won our first election… we just have a heck of a lot to learn.”
“I don’t think about any of that stuff,” he said. “I think about the job before us. … we’re doing one thing right now — we’re getting ready to serve Nebraskans in January.”
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