14 things to know about Ben Sasse, Nebraska’s next senator

Midland University President Ben Sasse on Tuesday won the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R) this year. Democrats won’t contest the state this fall, making Sasse virtually a senator-in-waiting.

But before jumping to conclusions that the tea party beat the establishment, note that Sasse doesn’t fit neatly into the outsider construct. Here are 14 things to know about Sasse, a candidate with an unusually diverse resume that includes time working within the system:

1. He’s a fifth-generation Nebraskan, but he spent much of his career in Boston, Austin and Washington, D.C. Sasse attended high school in Fremont, Neb., spent his summers working soybean and corn fields, then left to attend Harvard, Oxford and Yale.

2. Sasse has a PhD. He wrestled at Harvard, quarterbacked the Oxford football team (real football, we’re told, not soccer). In total, he has five academic degrees: A bachelor’s from Harvard, a Master’s from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., two Master’s degrees from Yale and a Ph.D.

3. His secret weapon: A bump on the noggin. Sasse has a long scar on the top of his forehead, the result of a childhood fall off a hayloft. When he wrestled at Harvard, Sasse jokes his secret weapon was headbutting opponents because he had no feeling in that part of his forehead (His standard line is that he didn’t go to Harvard for the superior academics, he went for the inferior athletics).

4. Sasse worked at some of the biggest venture capital firms in the country. He put in time at Boston Consulting Group, where Mitt Romney got his start, and at McKinsey and Company, where he advised companies like Northwest Airlines and Ameritech and government agencies in the United States and Iraq. He later taught part-time at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

5. He has experience in Washington. Sasse served in various capacities in George W. Bush’s administration, starting as chief of staff in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy. He consulted for the Department of Homeland Security and was a counselor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services until December 2007, when the Senate confirmed him unanimously as Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

6. More specifically, he’s got experience in Congress. Sasse served as chief of staff to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) for six months in 2005, right after Fortenberry took office. From 1996 to 1998, he worked as a tutor for the House page program.

7. Returning to Nebraska, Sasse took over a struggling private college in 2009. Midland University, near Omaha, is affiliated with the Lutheran Church. As president, Sasse ended lifetime tenure for professors and helped engineer a takeover of Dana College, a nearby competitor (Fun fact: Paul Norris, the creator of Aquaman, is a Midland graduate).

8. He benefited big-time from outside group spending. The 60 Plus Association, the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, the Legacy Foundation Action Fund, FreedomWorks, Patriots for Economic Freedom, Citizens United, Gun Owners of America and Empower Nebraska, along with a few others, all spent money on Sasse’s behalf. FreedomWorks actually endorsed one of Sasse’s opponents, state Treasurer Shane Osborn, but yanked their support back in March, when Sasse started rising in the polls.

9. He also got a ton of support from conservative media outlets. The Weekly Standard profiled him before he even joined the race. National Review wrote a glowing profile in January. Journalists at both publications have savaged Sasse’s two main opponents in a series of blog posts. Credit close connections between those journalists and Jordan Gehrke, a senior Sasse strategist and long-time Republican consultant.

10. He received another assist from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). The three tea party rock stars held a late April rally for Sasse in North Platte.

11. Perhaps Sasse’s most clever move was taking on a leader in his own party — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It is time for every Republican in Washington, starting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to show some actual leadership on this issue,” Sasse said, demanding that Republicans give up their health-care subsidies, in a video posted in September (fast forward to the 2:09 mark). The video, and the fact that Sasse was endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund just before SCF backed McConnell’s challenger, Matt Bevin, enraged the minority leader, who lit into Sasse at a subsequent meeting. But in a conservative primary, being to the right of party leadership isn’t a bad thing; Sasse’s campaign used an attack ad from a super PAC with tenuous ties to a former McConnell staffer to paint their candidate as one who scares the establishment.

12. Still, it’s not wholly accurate to label Sasse the tea party candidate in the race. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been advocating for Sasse since before he made it big, and one of the big outside groups that advertised for Sasse, the Legacy Foundation Action Fund, used Larry McCarthy, McConnell’s ad maker, to cut the ad. McConnell allies think Sasse will be less Cruz and more Marco Rubio, a senator who stakes a claim to the right without needlessly antagonizing his colleagues. (Sasse said on MSNBC on Tuesday he would support McConnell for leader)

13. Beyond Gehrke, Sasse’s campaign team includes pollster Dave Sackett and ad guru Fred Davis. Tyler Grassmeyer, a longtime Hill staffer, is managing the race.

14. Sasse and his wife, Melissa, homeschool their three kids, Corrie, 12, Alex, 10, and Breck, 3. He spent Election Day on a pontoon boat behind his house, which he drives as the kids waterski.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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