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‘I’m not really that interested in incumbency’: Sen. Ben Sasse muses about his future

September 9, 2018 at 2:50 PM

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Officials on Sept. 9 reacted to allegations of chaos in the Trump administration detailed in an anonymous New York Times op-ed. (Patrick Martin /The Washington Post)

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) spent the past week rekindling his musings about not fitting in with the Republican Party, from TV appearances to committee hearing rooms to social media.

The Nebraska Republican even acknowledged that he periodically considers switching his party affiliation to independent, after an Iowa woman with just 114 followers on Twitter told Sasse that she abandoned her Democratic registration this week because she dislikes both parties.

“Yep — regularly consider it,” Sasse tweeted back to her, in between other musings about the state of politics and his son’s flag football game Saturday morning.

A frequent Trump critic, Sasse has fashioned himself as a conservative intellectual with an American history PhD from Yale University. That led to his becoming president of Midland University at 37, helping turn around the small Lutheran university about 40 miles outside of Omaha.

Related: ‘Disastrous for America’: Fears of Trump GOP critic realized in summit with Putin

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) plays with a photographer's camera during a break in Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Advisers cautioned against reading too much into Sasse’s tweet about leaving the GOP and pointed to nearly two years of similar statements in which he has identified himself as an “independent conservative who caucuses with Republicans.”

No party switch is imminent, they advised, and frankly, it’s still unclear whether he intends to run for reelection in 2020, a decision that he told The Washington Post in a July interview that he will make next summer.

Still, during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning, he said he thinks about leaving the GOP “every morning,” while decrying the way he said Republicans and Democrats get caught up in the political furors of the day instead of having a “long-term vision” for the country.

Sasse said he considers himself an “independent conservative who caucuses with the Republicans.” But despite his misgivings, he said he is “committed to the party of Lincoln and Reagan as long as there is a chance to reform.”

He added that his disillusionment was directed at the entire political system, not just the Republican Party.

“The main thing the Democrats are for is being anti-Republican and anti-Trump,” he said. “The main thing Republicans are for is being anti-Democrat and anti-CNN. And neither of these things are really worth getting out of bed in the morning for.”

Asked whether he would run for president in 2020, he said he was more likely to run for the local “noxious weed control board.” But he didn’t completely rule out a White House run.

“We spend way too much time talking about campaigning,” he said.

Later, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said the daily drama coming out of the White House was a “distraction.”

“I don’t have any desire to beat this president up, but it’s pretty clear that this White House is a reality-show, soap-opera presidency,” he said.

The comments reaffirmed what he had said earlier in the week. In a TV interview Wednesday, Sasse, 46, reiterated his growing lack of interest in Congress and his preference for the kind of issues that often get overlooked on Capitol Hill.

“Most of the stuff I care about isn’t right vs. left. It’s past vs. future,” he said on MSNBC’s”Morning Joe.” “I’m the second- or third-most-conservative person in the Senate by voting record, and I don’t hide any of that. But most of what I care about isn’t stuff that we’re actually debating in the Congress. So I’m not really that interested in incumbency.”

That came a day after his opening statement at the confirmation hearings for Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, in which Sasse lamented that those confirmation battles had become such big showdowns because Congress is dysfunctional and cedes its power to the executive branch.

That then leads to court battles over executive branch authority, ending up with protesters from the left and right outside the Supreme Court, he said.

“That’s a pretty good litmus test barometer of the fact that our republic isn’t healthy. Because people shouldn’t be thinking they ought to be protesting in front of the Supreme Court. They should be protesting in front of this body,” Sasse said in his opening statement.

Some anti-Trump conservatives have publicly encouraged Sasse to run a primary challenge against the president in 2020, while others have floated the idea of him running as an independent.

Sasse has deflected those questions with an intellectual’s critique of American politics. “The country is in a bad way. I think my party is in a bad way, but I think the institution of Congress, and the institution of the Senate, are arguably the second-weakest in U.S. history,” he said in the July interview with The Post, the same day Trump held his summit with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and undermined U.S. intelligence officials.

Related: As the GOP’s anti-Trump, Ben Sasse picked a big fight. What would it mean to win?

On Saturday morning, he picked up that theme again, on Twitter. He began by lamenting how Democratic and Republican voters are increasingly inclined to believe unproven conspiracies about the opposing side, saying “technological fragmentation” of the media has left too much of the electorate without straight news.

Sasse then went back to watching his son’s football team, updating his 262,000 followers about the game’s progress. “This kid is a beast,” he tweeted, showing a picture of his son about to catch a pass. “Put him on your fantasy team.”

Christian Davenport contributed to this story

Related: Read more at PowerPost


Paul Kane is The Washington Post's senior congressional correspondent and columnist. His column about the 115th Congress, @PKCapitol, appears throughout the week and on Sundays. He joined The Post in 2007.

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