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Ben Sasse, Mystery Man

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

I am not at all certain who or what Ben Sasse is. I interviewed him in February, and heard him speak to a large, sympathetic group not long after that. And, of course, I’ve seen him interviewed by others. But I still don’t have a handle on what kind of senator he will be.  

In that regard, at least, the Nebraska GOP Senate nominee is very different from Sen. Ted Cruz. After talking with Cruz a couple of times when he was still seeking the GOP nomination last cycle, I understood the Texan’s philosophy and his approach to politics in general and the legislative process in particular.  

“Cruz is not willing to compromise even if it means being irrelevant to the legislative process,” I wrote in a July 31, 2012, Roll Call column, adding, “If elected, Cruz certainly will join the GOP’s ‘Uncompromising Caucus,’ which includes [then-South Carolina Sen. Jim] DeMint, [Utah Sen. Mike] Lee, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a handful of others, making it more difficult for his party’s leadership …”  

But Sasse (pronounced “sass”) seems to have been able to be all things to all people during his Senate bid this year. That means he’s a skilled politician, but it could also mean that some Republicans will feel terribly misled after seeing him in action in the Senate. During my various interactions with Sasse, I found him to be thoughtful, measured and analytic. More than that, he’s personable. At one event, while some anti-establishment political hopefuls droned on about the Constitution, the founding fathers and their opponents this cycle, Sasse started off with personal stories and used humor to segue into political themes.  

The Nebraska Republican isn’t a big fan of government, but most Republicans aren’t these days. Unlike some, he didn’t use intentionally inflammatory language when talking about the GOP, and he clearly has the potential to become an important “ideas guy” within the party — something it needs.  

But during my interview with him, Sasse seemed to try to avoid being pinned down when asked about compromise on Capitol Hill. I got the sense that he would not compromise on some issues, but believed it was not in his party’s interest to oppose every compromise. But that was only my impression.  

Sasse’s background suggests a conservative who is both pragmatic and savvy. After graduating from Harvard, he worked for a number of business consulting and private equity firms. He received a doctorate in history from Yale in 2004, but told me he never planned on being an academic. That’s unusual, and a bit odd, since there is no reason to get a Ph.D. in history other than teaching at the university level.  

Sasse worked in the George W. Bush administration, first in the Office of Legal Policy in the Justice Department and then as assistant secretary of Health Policy in the Department of Health and Human Services.  

Although he later had a tenure track position at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Sasse acknowledged he was “almost always on leave.” Eventually, he became president of a small, financially troubled college in Nebraska with which his family had deep roots.  

While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seemed to regard Sasse as an adversary because of his support from the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is backing McConnell’s own primary opponent, many pragmatic conservatives looked at the three Nebraska GOP Senate hopefuls — Sasse, former state Treasurer Shane Osborn and community banker Sid Dinsdale — and concluded that any of the three would be a reasonable addition to the Senate. So, they stayed out of the race.  

But libertarian and tea party groups didn’t see the primary that way at all. Most of the major anti-establishment groups eventually lined up behind Sasse and spent considerable resources attacking the two other candidates. For those groups, there was a huge difference between the hopefuls.  

What did they know that the business community didn’t?  

A day before the election, the Sasse campaign sent out an email from Cruz with a full-throated endorsement from the Texas senator, urging primary voters to support Sasse, who “has the courage and character to stand on principle” and would confront the “bosses in Washington.”  

“Senator Mike Lee and I urgently need reinforcements like Ben in the Senate,” Cruz said in the email.  

Was that email simply a case of using a well-known conservative to appeal to conservative primary voters?  Or will Ben Sasse join with Cruz and Lee to spend more time fighting the GOP establishment than Democrats?  

The answer to the question was made muddier Tuesday morning, when, during a telephone interview with Chuck Todd on “The Daily Rundown,” Sasse stressed that he is a “team player” and said he “absolutely” is comfortable with the idea of Mitch McConnell as his party’s Senate leader.  

So for me at least, Sasse remains something of a mystery.  

Is he so talented that he is the kind of politician that can bridge large divides in the party, allowing different people to see very different things in him? Or did he simply mask his own views during the campaign, figuring that was the way to create a broad enough coalition to win?  

Will he be another member of the Cruz and Lee wing of the party, or will he be more like retiring Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a principled conservative who picks his fights and understands that “all or nothing” isn’t a strategy that helps his party or his country?  

We will have to wait for an answer.