A year ago Ben Sasse was a relatively unknown small college president and political newcomer. Now he’s making a strong run in Nebraska’s Republican U.S. Senate race. In this NET News Campaign Connection 2014 Signature Story, Mike Tobias reports on Sasse’s politics and history.
See the latest candidate campaign finance reports on the Federal Election Commission web site
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“That’s what the Ninth and Tenth Amendments taught us, is that when there are governance responsibilities, those functions should be delivered to and accountable to the people as much as possible at the state and local level, and that’s obviously what we mean in our little thought experiment in the film,” Sasse told the audience. “We’re not really trying to figure out how to move the architecture of the capitol to Nebraska.”
Sasse says there’s a crisis in Washington, caused by Democrats and Republicans who believe Washington is the “center of the world.”
“We believe that the federal government’s duty is to create a framework for ordered liberty where life is lived in the private sector and in local community,” Sasse said.
Working for the federal government in Washington, D.C., is part of the 42-year-old Sasse’s wide-ranging life story. He was born in the small town of Plainview and graduated from high school in Fremont. He then left Nebraska, earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s from St. John’s College in Maryland, and master’s and doctorate degrees in history from Yale. During and after working on degrees he had positions in Washington for the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, and as chief of staff for Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. In consulting or managing roles, he’s spent a lot of his professional career in industries ranging from airlines to manufacturing to health care.
“So most of my career is for-profit companies and not-for-profit organizations that were in bankruptcy or looking at going bankrupt, and I’ve done a lot of crisis and turnaround projects,” Sasse said. “I like organizations in crisis and things that need a turnaround, and obviously there’s no more broken institution in the country right now than the U.S. Congress.”
One of those self-described turnaround projects brought him back to Nebraska in 2010, when he became president of Midland University in Fremont. “Midland was unable to make payroll four out of six months as we arrived, and now we’re one of the fastest growing schools in the Midwest,” Sasse said.
Sasse says people first approached him about running for Senate about a year ago, when Sen. Mike Johanns announced he wasn’t seeking re-election. A summer listening tour of Nebraska convinced Sasse to enter the race last fall.
At the GOP Senate debate in Lincoln, Sasse said he’s running because he feels Washington is broken. “Our leaders do not respect the Constitution and our freedoms are eroding,” Sasse said. “Our generation has a moral obligation to leave this country as great and free and opportunity-filled for our kids and grandkids as we were blessed to inherit from our grandparents.”
Like the other Republicans in Nebraska’s U.S. Senate race, Sasse describes himself as conservative, is pro-life and wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.
“My proposal has four components,” Sasse said at the Republican Senate debate in Lincoln. “It doesn’t fit inside a 75-second answer but it does fundamentally fix the tax code, which is bias for lobbyists and special interests against Nebraska farmers, ranchers and small business people because it actually creates portability across job and geographic change and then it tries to stabilize the entitlement programs by devolving Medicaid back to Lincoln from Washington’s one-size-fits-all proposals.”
Sasse opposes amnesty and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the United States, and says the U.S. military needs to be able to fight two large scale wars at the same time. “In that world where we make sufficient investments, the world is a safer place and the use of force is actually much less likely or needed,” Sasse said. “Right now, though, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve made pledges that we don’t intend to keep and we’ve limited our future investments in ways that make us weaker and therefore the world less stable.”
Sasse says he would reduce the national debt and balance the budget by cutting spending. “We’re on a pathway toward a Greek-style debt crisis,” Sasse said, “and health entitlements are the single largest place where Washington has just made-up hokey math that can’t possibly work.”
In a time when Republican candidates often reference Ronald Reagan as a model conservative from the past, Sasse talks about the legacy of a different Republican from that era, former New York Congressman Jack Kemp.
“The vision of conservatism that he articulated, which was based on opportunity, which was based on racial inclusiveness and fighting really hard to build the future of America, that had every family and every community wanting to grow and aspire and build more together,” Sasse said. “But you mostly can’t do that by the federal government handing out money and creating dependency. I think we have to move to a world where we’re talking a lot more about earned success and the way that works in our local communities and a lot less about learned dependency.”
Not long ago Republicans at the Greater Omaha Pachyderm Luncheon might not have known much, if anything, about Ben Sasse and his politics. Now Sasse hopes they’ll remember him when they vote on May 13.