Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota looks “close to unbeatable,” Public Policy Polling observed in January. The Democrat is the sixth most popular senator in America: Sixty-one percent of Minnesotans approve of her performance. Meanwhile, she boasts $4.6 million in cash on hand, the tenth most of the 23 incumbents running for reelection this year.
But Pete Hegseth thinks he can beat her. On March 1, the 31-year-old Iraq veteran announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, and though he is mostly unknown among the grassroots, his announcement has piqued their curiosity.
“We need some excitement in the race,” says Jennifer DeJournett, president of Voices of Conservative Women, “and he seems to be bringing that to the table.”
“If you run a candidate with the ‘it’ factor, you can come from behind,” says Andy Aplikowski, writer of the blog Residual Forces. “Hegseth, I think, has that.”
“Pete has ‘pizzazz,’” writes Pat Anderson, the Republican national committeewoman for Minnesota, in an e-mail. “I have never met him. But those few who have think he is a fantastic candidate.”
Can he live up to the hype? Some think so, and his impressive life story is sure to help.
Hegseth grew up in Forest Lake, Minn. After graduating from the local high school, he chose to attend Princeton over West Point, and for one reason: basketball. “I lived, ate, and breathed basketball,” Hegseth tells National Review Online. And so he went east — where he spent a lot of time on the bench. “I was a guard, but I didn’t play much until my senior year,” he admits.
He majored in politics and minored in American studies. “I came to Princeton with conservative values, but I couldn’t say why I had conservative values,” Hegseth remembers. “[Princeton] gave me an opportunity to look at what I believed, why I believed it, and how other people’s ideas compared to what I believed.” His approach to academic life came from the back of a Bazooka Joe bubble-gum wrapper: “Keep an open mind, but don’t fill it with garbage.”
He kept an open mind — and his guard up. Hegseth became the publisher of the Princeton Tory, the conservative rag on campus, where he drew fire from classmates for openly questioning liberal shibboleths. The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper, recently featured some of Hegseth’s writings in a full-length exposé. “Diversity is a noteworthy discussion topic, yet highly overvalued at this University,” Hegseth wrote in one issue. “As the publisher of the Tory, I strive to defend the pillars of Western civilization against the distractions of diversity.”
Reminiscing about her past outrage, classmate Erin Wade told the Princetonian, “I felt his views were embarrassing to the University, and frankly I still think they are.”
But Evan Baehr, a fellow Tory, told the paper he thought Hegseth handled himself well: “He was able to pull off sitting in the middle of the social scene and the varsity sports scene, while at the same time being extremely admired and being the leader of the conservative activity at Princeton for several years.”
The defining moment of Hegseth’s career, however, was his decision to join the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. “I don’t come from a military family,” Hegseth says, though his two grandfathers served in post–World War II positions. “It really came from a desire to give back — to be a part of what has defended this country.”
To this day, Hegseth remembers the Memorial Day parades in Wanamingo, Minn., where his parents grew up. Every year, the town’s dwindling number of veterans would march proudly down the center of Main Street, and the crowd would give them a standing ovation. And every time he saw them, Hegseth got chills. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do that.’”
After he graduated from Princeton in June 2003, Hegseth was commissioned a second lieutenant and shipped to Fort Benning, Ga., for four months of training. He worked briefly at Bear Stearns, and then, in the spring of 2004, he deployed to Guantanamo Bay, where he helped oversee prisoners for a year — and defended the George W. Bush administration’s detainment policy.
In an interview with Minnesota’s Star Tribune in June 2005, Hegseth disputed the accusation that the military mistreated prisoners at Guantanamo. “We bend over backwards to conform ourselves to the detainees’ way of life, especially when it comes to religion,” he told the paper. “To be honest with you,” he added, “I think their food is better than what my guys got.”