It’s not easy to pile up more than 20,000 sheets of paper — the number of pages of regulations associated with Obamacare, according to some estimates. Yet it’s an effective prop for Ben Sasse, a Republican running for Senate in Nebraska. “This is a picture of what government can’t do well, wasn’t built to do, and inevitably fails at,” he says, gesturing toward the tower of paper. At full height, the pages stand more than nine feet tall. On the evening of December 17, in the First National Bank of Holdrege with its eight-foot ceiling, the top segment has to rest on a nearby table. “Government this big squashes freedom,” says Sasse. A man in the audience senses a more imminent threat: “I’m hoping that stack doesn’t fall on you!” It stays up during an hour-long town-hall meeting in part because a pipe runs through the middle of the pages like a spine, holding them together. Aides wheel the contraption around on a dolly and store it in the bowels of the campaign’s RV.
Sasse is betting that deep discontent with Obamacare will drive him into the Senate later this year. Nebraska is all but certain to elect a Republican to succeed retiring GOP senator Mike Johanns, so the state’s main election will take place on May 13, when Sasse squares off against banker Sid Dinsdale, former state treasurer Shane Osborn, and two other Republicans in this year’s first truly contested Senate primary. Between now and then, each candidate will position himself as a conservative and rail against Obamacare. With Sasse, however, Nebraska Republicans have an opportunity to do more: They can elect not merely a man who promises to vote for the repeal of President Obama’s signature policy achievement, but a senator who almost immediately would become one of the GOP’s most visible and articulate experts on the health-care law’s defects and the ways to replace it.
The 41-year-old Benjamin Eric Sasse is a fifth-generation Nebraskan, a fact that he’s eager to point out because he’s spent most of his adult life away from the Cornhusker State. His stump speeches often begin with a reference to family reunions near Beatrice, a farming town that is also the site of the Homestead National Monument, honoring the Homestead Act of 1862. “It was one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history,” says Sasse of the law that put 270 million acres of public land into private hands. “It was only a page and a half long.” The Affordable Care Act requires about a dozen pages just to get through its table of contents.
After growing up in Fremont, where he was the high-school valedictorian, Sasse left for Harvard: “Not because of superior academics, but because of inferior athletics,” he jokes. He wrestled for two years and specialized in head-butting his opponents. Sasse has a long scar at the top of his forehead, along his hairline, from falling off a hayloft as a boy. “I have no feeling there,” he says. “It gave me a small advantage.” He left the wrestling team to spend his junior year abroad, and then earned a degree in government. Next came an itinerant career in business consulting, combining full-time employment with full-time study. He roamed the country, working with clients such as Ameritech and Northwest Airlines, while he also pursued a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and then a Ph.D. in history from Yale. His dissertation, on populist conservatism from the 1950s to the 1970s, won a pair of prestigious campus prizes. “He’s insanely disciplined and incredibly hard-working,” says Will Inboden, a University of Texas professor who lived across the street from Sasse when they were graduate students at Yale. “It’s amazing how much he did.” The virtue of work is a constant theme in Sasse’s speeches and conversation. “Work is where meaning is,” he says. “I don’t know how capitalism and America function if people work to get beyond working, just so they can get to leisure.” One of his favorite recent books is Coming Apart, by Charles Murray, especially for its section on the importance of industriousness.