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.”
In the summer of 2005, he deployed as an infantry platoon leader to Baghdad, where he served half his tour. Later, he moved to Samarra, site of the doomed al-Askari Mosque, and his experience convinced him the mission in Iraq was winnable. Hegseth worked as a liaison to the local town council, and in that capacity, he developed a close relationship with town-council president Asaad Ali Yaseen, who sided with the Americans against al-Qaeda.
But he also developed a close relationship with a 19-year-old Iraqi nicknamed “Little Omar.” When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Little Omar was an insurgent; he planted IEDs and shot at American soldiers. But because a relative was serving on Samarra’s town council, Little Omar took a job as a bodyguard, and he was none too pleased to find himself working with Americans. “I had been told by my mullah that you were here to kill my family and convert us to Christianity,” he told the Americans.
But after some time, Little Omar realized, “you’ve come all the way from America to help us and that means I need to do everything I can to help you.” He infiltrated a local al-Qaeda cell and fed information to the Americans. Unfortunately, someone ratted him out, and it is believed al-Qaeda members took him to the outskirts of Samarra and executed him. Although Little Omar was gone, he left an indelible impression on Hegseth.
“He was willing to change and did change. I believed that Iraqis, if given an alternative, would turn against al-Qaeda,” he says.
When he returned stateside in 2006, Hegseth worked briefly at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. It was at an MI event that he met Wade Zirkle, founder of Vets for Freedom, an organization dedicated to promoting successful conclusions of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Zirkle was taking a new job in New York and thus unable to hold onto the reins much longer. Hegseth and he hit it off, and so in 2007, Hegseth took over as executive director.
He quickly became the face of American vets who still believed in the War on Terror. He wrote extensively for NRO about the conflict in Iraq as an embedded correspondent. On MSNBC, he sparred with the likes of Chris Matthews, who, after one particularly awkward exchange, commended Hegseth: “I wish this — this government of ours had as much brainpower behind this war as your passion for this war.” Considering Matthews was vehemently anti-war, it’s about as close to a compliment Hegseth could get.
In the fall of 2009, Hegseth entered the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, but he completed only one semester. In 2010, he deployed with the Minnesota National Guard as a counterinsurgency instructor to Kabul, Afghanistan. For eight months, Hegseth taught at the Counterinsurgency Training Center. He returned to his home state in early February, and less than a few weeks later, he was running for the Senate.
Thanks to his military experience, Hegseth speaks fluently about foreign policy. On Afghanistan, his position is simple: Finish the job, or get out. To succeed, the first thing the U.S. would need to do is change our withdrawal deadline. “You’re not going to change anything else until you change the perception [that] we’re leaving no matter what.” Nonetheless, “I don’t think that’s going to happen. And the deadline is too damaging” to continue the existing plans.
As a result, Hegseth argues, “I think we should responsibly withdraw from Afghanistan and make sure we do two things: leave enough special operators behind to continue to disrupt and make sure there are no safe havens for extremists, and leave partners to train the Afghan army to get them to a point where they can secure their own country.”
Despite his comfort with military issues, Hegseth pledges that “the No. 1 issue for us is jobs and the economy. That’s where we’re going to stay focused.” Because he returned to politics only recently, he has yet to flesh out his policy positions. But he gave NRO a few glimpses at his future platform:
On entitlement reform, specifically Medicare: “I would definitely look at getting rid of fee-for-service. . . . Premium support is definitely something I would be talking about and looking at.”
On the contraception mandate: “I really think that’s a religious-liberty question. If the Catholic Church doesn’t feel it’s in its code to do that, they should not in any way be forced to do so.”
On the Keystone pipeline: “I see that issue as the choice between jobs and an environmental-impact study, and I’m always going to side with jobs.”
Hegseth will be developing his platform in the next few months, but more important, he’ll be “dialing for dollars and dialing for delegates,” predicts Gregg Peppin, a Minnesota Republican consultant. Hegseth faces three other primary challengers, all of whom will be competing for the state GOP’s endorsement at the state convention in May. To win the endorsement, a candidate will need to gain 60 percent of the 2,200 delegates’ votes.
And then he’d have the general against the formidable Klobuchar. But Hegseth remains undaunted. “Senator Klobuchar has been very good at getting involved in easy, noncontroversial issues that lend themselves to photo ops,” he says. “But when it comes to big issues, such as how we ensure our energy security, she’s not willing to step out and take a stand.”
Clearly, he doesn’t mind throwing a few punches. That’s in character. Hegseth’s favorite political quotation comes from President Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
And now, the man in the arena is Pete Hegseth.
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.