By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – The day before Nebraska’s Republican primary election, talk radio host Laura Ingraham was questioning his toughness on immigration. The day after the election, Rush Limbaugh was celebrating his ability to articulately indict liberalism.
And in between, on election day, Ben Sasse nailed 49 percent of the vote in a four-man race, racking up more than twice as many votes as the runner-up in his first run at public office.
So who is this guy who’s been dubbed a rising star by both the National Review and FOX News, who would be one of the youngest U.S. Senators if elected in November as expected?
Although immediately dubbed a carpetbagger by the Democrats, he is a Nebraska native. He grew up near Fremont, paying his dues doing that time-honored tradition of “detasseling corn and walking bean fields,” as he often tells audiences. Saying you detasseled corn as a kid is a way to immediately inform Nebraskans that you are one of them. He has a scar on his forehead from a hayloft fall to prove it.
But Sasse isn’t your average Nebraska boy. He was the high school valedictorian and was recruited to wrestle at Harvard, which he downplays with a self-deprecating one-liner about how he wasn’t good enough to play football at the University of Nebraska.
“I went to Harvard not because I thought it was academically superior, but because it was athletically inferior,” he said in January to the delight of Joe Scarborough when Sasse was on his MSNBC show.
He got his bachelor’s degree at Harvard, was quarterback of the Oxford football team in England, got a master’s from St. John’s College and two master’s and a Ph.D. from Yale. He calls himself a policy nerd and autodidact (a self-taught person).
He says he’s good at fixing things. His first job out of college was with the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm. After two weeks of training, he got a call saying he needed to get on a 6 a.m. flight to Minneapolis the next day, where he spent four months helping Northwest Airlines avoid bankruptcy by improving planes’ turnaround time between flights.
While he’s been painted as a tea partyer, outsider and anti-establishment Republican, he spent time on the inside. From 2003 to 2005, he was chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy, where he worked on sharing intelligence between the FBI and CIA.
The Bush administration lured him back in 2007 to work as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the fourth-ranking job in the department.
When asked to explain how he’s not a Washington insider by gotcha-man John Stossel, Sasse said he “worked in Washington for about four years” but is now raising his kids where he grew up.
Mark Fahleson, former chairman of the state Republican Party, met Sasse when he went to U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s swearing-in ceremony in 2005. Sasse was hired as his chief of staff to get the office up and running. He was fixing a printer when Fahleson walked in.
“When I first met him he was fixing broken things in Congress and now he’s going back to fix more broken things in Congress,” Fahleson said.
They stayed in touch. After 9/11, Sasse said he was more determined than ever to move his family back to Nebraska.
“I gotta make that happen,” he’d say to Fahleson.
In 2009, he got his chance. He received a distress call from the Lutheran college in his hometown, Midland University, where his father graduated and grandfather worked for 33 years. The school was on the edge of bankruptcy, and the board of directors first sought his advice, then asked him to take the helm.
At age 37, he took the job as president and became one of the youngest chief executives in higher education. He and his wife, Melissa, a Birmingham, Ala., native, already owned a lake house near Fremont, less than a mile from where Sasse grew up. He said she’s since become a one-woman chamber of commerce, trying to recruit friends and family to move there.
They have three children, Corrie, 12, Alex, 10 and Breck, 3 — all of whom have been staples on the campaign trail, as the family went on the road in a big RV with Sasse signs splashed on the side. During the end of one debate, Sasse noted the whole family was sleeping in one bed, which involved a lot of kicking and bad breath.
They homeschool the girls, even on the campaign trail. Sasse will be in the middle of an interview and stop to make sure his daughter Corrie is doing her school work rather than reading fiction. The girls are required to read one article in the newspaper daily and write a one-page op-ed. Sasse makes the girls record their daily activities on time sheets.
“He’s constantly teaching,” said senior campaign adviser Jordan Gehrke, adding that Sasse constantly talks to his kids about the value of work.
Most summer nights, the family gets on a boat, cranks up the country music and pulls the girls around on water skis.
“The guy’s one of the best dads I’ve ever seen,” Gehrke said.
Sasse schedules his days in half-hour increments, getting up at 4 a.m. every day to work out and read a couple of papers.
“He’s probably one of the most disciplined people I’ve ever seen in my life,” Gehrke said.
Melissa, who was valedictorian at the University of Alabama and teaches a couple of classes at Midland University, said she was not entirely on board when Fahleson launched a campaign to draft Sasse into running a year ago.
“I love our life in Fremont,” she said.
After a long walk, they decided to do it for the country. But first, they would test the waters in Fremont. His hometown cemented their decision by helping him raise a record amount of campaign cash in the first quarter.
“Ben’s always been interested in government and how things work,” Melissa Sasse said.
But politics? Not so much. He was content with his job, where he shepherded a turnaround.
“He truly was a reluctant candidate,” Fahleson said.
The two had met countless times at a “secret location” between Fremont and Lincoln, where they’d talk about the Huskers, public policy, religion and raising daughters. After serving as GOP chairman from 2009 to 2013, Fahleson said he was burned out on politics. He and his wife had an understanding that he was out of the game, with one caveat. If Sasse ever ran for office, he could help.
So Fahleson jumped back into politics by launching a campaign to draft his friend to run for the Senate. Why?
“I know he is a man of integrity,” Fahleson says. “I know he is intelligent and thoughtful. He understands why he’s a conservative. Far too many Republicans I have worked with can read the talking points, but I can tell it’s not in their hearts, or they don’t understand why.”
If Sasse wins, the family would not move to Washington, D.C., Melissa Sasse said.
Gehrke said Melissa Sasse is “not at all impressed by D.C.” and he expects Sasse likely would continue his tradition of bringing a daughter or two with him to Washington, as he did in the past while on a national health care speaking circuit, where he has debated former presidential contender and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Sasse’s campaign was criticized for airing a TV ad featuring his daughters talking about his commitment to repealing Obamacare, with some accusing them of giving the girls talking points. But it’s not hard to believe the campaign’s claim that were filmed talking off the cuff, given they’ve tagged along to countless Obamacare town hall meetings across the state, where Sasse drags out a 9-foot-high stack of Obamacare rules and regulations.
The 10-year-old will drop the word “hypothesis” in casual conversation. Asked what her favorite part of the campaign was, she says going to the Sandhills and meeting a man who runs a “cow-calf operation.” On election night, Corrie Sasse put together the playlist for the watch party — all country music.
“They’re super precocious and talk to their parents constantly,” Gehrke said.
Sasse’s father, a retired teacher, said his son always was a sharp, gifted, happy child who set goals.
“He was just a good, good kid,” Gary Sasse said on election night, where the jubilation began early after the AP called the race within an hour of the polls closing.
He called his son “normal” — the same word his sister and Fahleson use to describe him. But “unique” was the word his stepmother, Jean, used to describe him.
“He’s always been different — driven,” she said.
His dad said the only sign he might be interested in politics was when he worked as a page in Congress while in high school and as a tutor to the page program while in graduate school. And his favorite movie growing up was “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Now suddenly Rush Limbaugh is talking about Sasse, crediting him for “openly indicting liberalism and the liberal path to decline.”
“It’s so easy to say,” Limbaugh said on the show Wednesday. “You just don’t find Republicans willing to say it anymore, but Ben Sasse did and he won.”
Limbaugh said there’s a blueprint for “huge Republican conservative victory” but it’s ignored, even impugned by the establishment Republican Party. He said when that message is properly articulated, “it wins.”
After Sasse,– who started out 32 points behind the frontrunner with virtually no name recognition, was declared a major tea party winner, he was asked on FOX’s morning show Thursday whether he’s a mainstream Republican.
“I’m not always sure what mainstream Republican means,” he said. “So many of these labels seem like they’re driven by the national liberal media, whose favorite topic is Republicans fighting Republicans.”
However, he is prone to take on his fellow Republicans.
“If ‘mainstream Republican’ means you’re satisfied with the way Washington works right now, then the people in Nebraska — we don’t believe in that,” he told FOX. “I’m a very conservative guy, but 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.”
When asked whether Sasse is a tea partyer, Gehrke dodges the question and starts reiterating Sasse’s talking points about how the problem isn’t just that the Democrats are in charge of Washington and have bad ideas, but Republicans have no ideas. Pressed on the point, he said, “I think he’s somebody who’s a full-spectrum conservative.”
“It’s too easy to label him as one thing,” he said. “I think he’s a lot of things.”
But Fahleson, an informal adviser to Sasse, is more definitive.
“I can’t describe him as tea party,” he said. “I would say he’s one part Jack Kemp, one part Ronald Regan and one part Russell Kirk.”
While some reporters have labeled Sasse “The Next Ted Cruz,” he emulates Kemp, quoting him on election night, saying, “We may not get every vote, but we’ll speak to every heart.”
“We will represent the entire American family,” he said. “We will aim not just to win, but to be worthy of winning.”
Fahleson said Sasse admired Kemp’s positivity and desire for opportunity for all, his belief that America’s better days were ahead. While he has a lot in common with Cruz, who endorsed him and made a crucial campaign appearance with him in western Nebraska, they have different styles, Fahleson said.
“I’ve been involved in politics over two decades and he is without a doubt the strongest candidate I have ever had the pleasure of volunteering for,” he said.
While the media was pitting the race as a bellwether for the tea party’s strength, Gehrke was explaining in a memo that Sasse is just a phenomenal candidate with “movie-casting looks.”
“Some people have that ‘it factor,’ ” Fahleson said. “Ben’s a different kind of candidate.”
The other guy
Some reporters seem to have forgotten Sasse still has an opponent. But in this bright red state, the other guy is expected to have an uphill battle.
On Thursday, while Sasse started the day with a FOX News interview, his Democratic opponent, David Domina, was making an appearance at a Lincoln coffee shop.
Aside from the two campaign workers, four people showed up. One was a childhood friend he hadn’t seen in years, another was a woman with three kids whose husband was going to be deported.
But Domina is no slouch. He’s a prominent trial lawyers in the state and has represented landowners fighting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, successfully getting Nebraska’s pipeline siting law struck down by a district judge.
Asked how he plans to beat the young upstart from Fremont, Domina answered with a question: “Is he the most extreme candidate for public office in the state’s history?”
Not according to his Republican opponents, who tried to portray him as soft on Obamacare and immigration. But Domina said Sasse would dismantle Social Security (by supporting privatization), refuse to pay veterans benefits (because he supported the government shutdown that disrupted their benefits) and wants to abolish the minimum wage.
“He’s too extreme,” Domina said. “I think I can beat him because I think he’s too extreme.”
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