LINCOLN — Sen. Ben Sasse ran for office in 2014 urging fellow Republicans to offer a conservative alternative to Obamacare that improved American health care, instead of just repealing the Affordable Care Act and leaving a broken status quo.
Six years later, on his campaign bus in Nebraska, Sasse on Thursday acknowledged Republican frustrations over an issue that motivated many of the Nebraskans who sent him to Washington: Congress fell one vote short of repealing Obamacare and has not yet found a replacement.
But despite coming up short on his signature issue, Sasse is viewed by political observers as one of the nation’s least-threatened Republican senators.
The only planned debate of Nebraska’s 2020 Senate race will be aired on Nebraska Educational Television at 7 p.m. Friday.
One reason for his comfortable position: The winner of the Democratic primary, Omaha baker Chris Janicek, sent lewd texts in June to his fundraising director and other members of his campaign staff. His party then disavowed him. Janicek called the texts a tasteless joke. The fundraising director called them demeaning.
Nebraska Democrats said they will announce a write-in candidate in the coming days because Janicek ignored their demand that he quit the race and be replaced on the ballot with Omaha mental health practitioner Alisha Shelton. She can’t run as a write-in because she lost to Janicek in the primary.
Richard Witmer, a political science professor at Creighton University, said Janicek already faced an uphill battle in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 200,000 and the state’s nonpartisan voters lean center-right.
Add in outrage over Janicek’s sexually explicit texts, and his party’s decision to support a write-in candidate, and you have a recipe for a “Sasse blowout,” said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Sasse said Thursday that he wishes that Nebraska Democrats were “healthier” because it would help Republicans avoid “preaching to the choir” and force more candidates to find answers to hard questions instead of playing to each party’s political extremes.
Such polarization in politics is part of why Sasse said Republicans and Democrats have yet to find an answer on health care. Many of his colleagues offer ideas they know won’t pass to play for the political theater on TV, he said, instead of working toward future-oriented solutions most Americans would accept.
“The Republican Party is often as devoid of ideas for the 2030 agenda as the Democratic Party,” he said during an interview with The World-Herald. “There need to be more American solutions.”
Last year, Sasse introduced a pair of bills on health care, including one to expand the types of health insurance plans eligible for health savings accounts. But the bills have not advanced, and Sasse expressed disappointment that he hadn’t found enough allies. If he is reelected, he said, he will keep trying.
That includes trying to focus both Republicans and Democrats on the need to help more Americans buy and keep private health insurance with them when they change jobs and when they move, even across state lines, with employers still paying a share of premiums.
One key obstacle in Congress, he said, is that too many Republicans believe that the solution is to send more people into the bloated bureaucracy of private insurance and too many Democrats believe that the answer is to send more people into the bloated government bureaucracy.
Sasse would prefer that Congress spend more time on improving the health care delivery system so it can drive better care for lower costs, through federal incentives for better outcomes, decreased regulation and technology.
He compared health care today to pension plans in the 1980s and said health care needs more flexibility, in much the same way that Republicans offered 401(k) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts.
Janicek and Jane Kleeb, the state Democratic Party chairwoman, criticized Sasse as ineffective on health care, an issue that polls by both parties show is important to voters. Janicek has said health care is his top priority. He’s considering several plans and wants one that can pass a divided Congress.
Janicek’s campaign said he supports one of three different concepts: improving the Affordable Care Act instead of gutting it; creating some form of government-funded universal health insurance plan with subsidized premiums to compete with private insurance; or replacing private health insurance with a “Medicare for All” plan.
“Something has to be done,” Janicek said this week, adding that most people can’t afford to have a heart attack like he did at age 50, when he wound up responsible for 60% of a $175,000 medical bill, despite having the health insurance he bought as a small business owner.
Kleeb has said Sasse is out of touch and inaccessible to ordinary Nebraskans. She said Nebraska has very little to show for his years in office, other than a lot of talk.
Sasse defended his Senate record and said he has done more than help Republicans confirm conservative judges, including a pair of Supreme Court justices, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. He said he’s proud of his Intelligence Committee work.
He said he works with intelligence and counter-intelligence services on efforts to address theft of American intellectual property by Chinese spies and cybercriminals and has focused much of his attention on shoring up U.S. cyberdefenses.
He said he has also focused on the future of work, in particular how to help Americans and businesses prepare for a future where people change jobs more frequently. He wants to make sure that student loan and grant programs recognize this already changing reality.
And he would like to keep working on entitlement reform, including his proposal to adjust the retirement age to reflect that people are living longer.
In response, Kleeb said it’s unconscionable that Sasse and other Republicans are so hostile toward people’s earned benefits.
Sasse, whose wife, Melissa, has dealt with health problems for years, would not commit to serving a second full six-year term. He said he and his family meet once every year or two to discuss their future together, and he will prioritize their needs first.
He smiled and changed the subject when asked whether he plans a presidential run in 2024.
He said that Americans still have a decision to make in 2020 and that he’s not yet sure what the conservative movement will look like in 2024. He declined to discuss whom he will vote for in November.
Sasse has been one of President Donald Trump’s most frequent Senate critics, although he still votes with his party and the president more than 90% of the time. His criticism sometimes provokes a harsh response.
After Sasse took issue with Trump’s use of executive action, for example, the president fired back in an Aug. 10 tweet: “RINO Ben Sasse, who needed my support and endorsement in order to get the Republican nomination for Senate from the GREAT State of Nebraska, has, now that he’s got it (Thank you President T), gone rogue, again. This foolishness plays right into the hands of the Radical Left Dems!”
But Sasse said people who think he has a poor relationship with Trump are mistaken. Trump respects him because he fights with him, Sasse said. He decried the idea that elected officials have to either shine the president’s shoes or hate everything he does.
There is a middle ground, he said, and it’s closer to the Republican Party of his past — one that he hopes will return to fiscal conservatism, pragmatic private solutions for problems and answers instead of anger.
Sasse relayed a conversation with a Nebraska voter: "They said 'I’m so sick of the hate-sex of our politics, where CNN and Donald Trump both live to scream about how terrible the other one is.' And none of that solves any of our problems."
An earlier version of this story directly attributed to Sen. Sasse a quote about the "hate-sex of our politics." Sasse was relaying comments made by a Nebraska voter.