Why you should care

Because this U.S. senator wants to save conservatism from being hijacked, but can he pull it off?

Earlier this year, in tiny Keosauqua, Iowa, I slipped into a bar before the last Ted Cruz campaign event of the day. In walked a middle-aged man in a red Nebraska tracksuit, with a Harvey Dent handsome grin and chin, albeit with slightly darker hair, who had just driven four-plus hours with his teenage daughter. He introduced himself as the freshman senator from Nebraska, here to speak out against Donald Trump, who, in his view, would wreak havoc on constitutional checks and balances.

To be honest, I didn’t recognize Ben Sasse. Today, as the Cornhusker State enters the primary voting booths in his home state, Sasse’s red tracksuit is impossible to miss. And the brash object of his ire is far from impressed. Case in point:

Yep, Sasse was never-Trump long before the sentiment trended into #NeverTrump. And now the jockish academic has emerged as an eloquent megaphone for those conservatives distraught with their party’s made-for-reality-TV turn. “Why shouldn’t America draft an honest leader who will focus on 70% of solutions for the next four years?” Sasse recently wrote in an “Open Letter to Majority America,” railing against Trump on Facebook. “You know … an adult?” It’s just one of many ways Sasse has made himself unavoidable this election cycle, from reading mean tweets from Trump supporters in a viral video to latching onto the campaign events of Cruz and Marco Rubio — “constitutional candidates,” as Sasse tells OZY — to publicize his criticisms of Trump.

After being elected in November 2014, the first-time legislator waited a year before giving his debut speech from the Senate floor. But once the relatively anonymous former McKinsey adviser took the stage, he promptly used it to bash Congress as a “broken institution” in a talk that had the conservative blogosphere swooning. “He has original ideas, and original ways of expressing them,” says former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who worked under George W. Bush as secretary of health and human services, where Sasse was the department’s assistant secretary for planning and evaluation.

Sasse hasn’t dropped the mic since, attaching his name to efforts to enact term limits for lawmakers, increase transparency of government data and bolster watchdog groups monitoring federal spending. Skeptical observers may see his sudden loquacity as opportunistic, but Sasse’s promise remains impossible to miss; Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, mentioned Sasse as a future party figurehead in a recent interview with OZY, and multiple Republicans have compared Sasse to fresh-faced House Speaker Paul Ryan. And like Ryan, the father of three home-schooled kids has batted back multiple requests to run a third-party presidential bid to ostensibly save conservatism from Trump.

Heroes don’t emerge unless there’s a villain, and Sasse’s own ascendance wouldn’t be possible without Trump’s bombastic rise. Since Reagan’s time, GOP candidates have raced to run further to the right, but few have had true ideological differences. Trump has obliterated that model, overpowering ideals with force of character, the first post-ideological Republican nominee since before Barry Goldwater. The billionaire’s narrative foils — including ideologically pure conservatives like Sasse — have emerged in response. “Movement conservativism needed someone to contrast itself to,” says Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative nonprofit.

That’s why far-right champion Cruz was Trump’s last remaining competitive antagonist, outlasting a host of moderate-ish Republicans, from Jeb Bush to Rubio, before bowing out in early March. And that’s why Sasse could be the emerging face of vigilante conservativism, a brand of the right that won’t remain loyal to a duly elected pick when the party needs saving. “If the Republican Party becomes the party of David Duke, Donald Trump, I’m out,” Sasse told MSNBC’s Morning Joe earlier this year. But the Midwesterner’s charm has an edge too: “People in my town don’t think this is a student council race,” Sasse tells me, when he deems a question flippant. Sasse got his political break with grassroots bankrollers like the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund.

There are two sides to every coin, of course. The ex–college president with four Ivy League degrees could easily have fostered unease within a Republican base increasingly made up of non-college graduates. In his first term, which started in January 2015, Sasse embraced a sidekick mindset, watching intently and hanging out with fellow outsider David Perdue from Georgia. But since finding his voice, the Nebraskan has hardly quieted, making not just a name for himself but also a reputation, so much so that one longtime Republican power player pulled me aside recently to ask if I thought, as others apparently did, that Sasse was arrogant. His staff didn’t return our request for comment, though Head says that while “the breath of fresh air for Sasse was his willingness to not speak for such a long time … now [he] feels like he’s seeing the problems, and has suggestions for how they can be solved. I think he feels like he’s starting to get a handle on the diagnosis, if not the actual cure, yet.”

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OZY2016

The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.