Meet the conservative college president running for the US Senate in Nebraska

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Ben Sasse, the university president who is running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska, isn’t afraid to tell voters that he thinks the government shouldn’t try to solve every problem in the world.

“Who is so impressed with the political class in America that they really think those people can solve everybody’s problems?” Sasse said in a recent interview with The Daily Caller.

“Most important things that are broken in life can’t be fixed by mandates and taxes,” he elaborated. “And so the stuff that’s meaningful in the lives of Nebraskans that I know is mostly non-governmental.”

While that’s a pretty standard belief for most conservatives, you don’t always hear poll-tested and risk-averse Republican candidates emphasize it on the trail. But Sasse — who has a Ph.D and studied at Harvard, Oxford and Yale — says Republicans must “tell the truth about it” if they want to win.

“We need to be telling people a story about the American idea,” he said, “and the American worldview that’s bigger than just the things the federal government has powers to do.”

Incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Johanns announced last year that he will not run for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2014. His retirement sparked a vibrant Republican primary to succeed him. Sasse’s competitors include former Nebraska Treasurer Shane Osborn, a former Navy pilot who was held in China for 12 days in 2001 after his plane famously collided with a Chinese fighter jet.

“I’m running because I don’t think that business as usual works,” Sasse said. “And I think, right now, too often the Republican Party looks a lot like the Democratic Party in terms of the kinds of candidates we put forward.”

“I think we’ve got a nation in crisis,” he said, “but we’ve also got a conservative movement in crisis. I don’t think we tell the story of the meaning of America.”

Sasse said Republicans have to find a way to appeal to people outside the base.

“We’re not winning,” he said. “I’m a solidly conservative guy up and down the line, but we actually have to win, people. And we’re not winning the middle of the electorate, and we’re definitely not winning kids and the next generation.”

Sasse says Obamacare is the top issue voters ask about. “No question that Obamacare is infinitely No. 1 as a policy issue,” he said. “There is no No. 2. Obamacare is what the people in Nebraska are talking about and worrying about.”

As he campaigns across the state, Sasse says he’s realized that Nebraskans view Obamacare “not just as a piece of legislation, but as a worldview.”

“Obamacare says that if there’s a big problem, only the government can fix it, budgets don’t matter,” he said.

Sasse knows health-care policy. From 2007 to 2009, he served under President George W. Bush as assistant secretary of health and human services. He says that experience “pretty radically” influenced what he thinks today about health care and Obamacare.

“There are a lot of kind and well-meaning people among the 80,000 bureaucrats – or whatever the current number is – that work [at the Department of Health and Human Services], but they’re completely incompetent to centrally plan 18 percent of GDP.”

Sasse has held a variety of jobs, but says “by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done was working” the corn and bean fields “when I was a 10 to 15 year old kid.”

“I think, intellectually, the main formative jobs I’ve had have not been being a historian by training, or serving as a college president now, or working in government for President Bush,” Sasse said. “I think the main adult work experiences I’ve had have been as a strategy management consultant, looking at big, broken organizations.”

Sasse says he’s on operational leave at Midland University — where he is still president — for the rest of the primary. “This is a 130-year-old Lutheran liberal arts college in the town that I grew up in, and my wife and I were raising our kids there, and I usually do, you know, three to six-month crisis projects.”

“I’m in my fifth year there, which is just so much longer than I usually ever do a project,” he said. “And we’ve been really blessed with the fastest-growing school in the Midwest right now. And I think my board well understood that this was a project that I was helping with, but that I’m not there forever, so I don’t think they’re surprised by the fact that I’m moving on.”

Whoever wins the Republican nomination is expected to win the general election.

Asked if he thinks he’s the most conservative candidate in the Republican primary, Sasse said, “I think so.”

But he declined to differentiate himself much with those he is running against.

“You know, I tend to not talk about my opponents much because I encourage other people – and voters in particular – to go and find it out from them,” he said. “I think politics seems remarkably nasty in ways that it doesn’t need to be, and so, inevitably, people might misrepresent their opponents’ views.”

Asked to name a lawmaker he admires and whose style he would emulate, Sasse referenced Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn. He praised the Oklahoman for looking at government spending at saying, “that’s nonsense, and here’s some math, and let’s stand up and admit this doesn’t make sense.”

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Alex Pappas