Ambitious politicians never openly root for their party’s presidential nominee to lose. Even if that’s what they probably secretly want.
When Republican standard-bearer Bob Dole (predictably) came up short against President Bill Clinton in 1996, Texas Gov. George W. Bush had the most to gain. While publicly behind the Bobster, Bush — son of the most recent Republican president — benefited from Dole’s loss because it opened up the 2000 GOP field.
Twenty years later Republicans may face a similar scenario. Two Republican senators, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Cory Gardner from Colorado, will be finishing up their first-terms as the 2020 election cycle rolls around. Should Democratic-nominee-in-waiting Hillary Clinton win the presidency in 2016, young-ish, dynamic GOP senators like Sasse and Gardner would both be well positioned to challenge her.
Granted, there are a lot of ifs in that scenario. But their political chops to this point suggest each is potential White House candidate material.
Sasse, 43, is a political wunderkind of sorts. He’s a rare Ph.D. in Congress — and a strong conservative to boot. The fifth-generation Nebraskan wrestled as an undergrad at Harvard. He holds a Master’s from St. John’s College in Annapolis, and two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. (in history) from Yale.
Sasse also put in time at Boston Consulting Group, among other elite corporate entities. He also “consulted for the Department of Homeland Security and was a counselor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services until December 2007, when the Senate confirmed him unanimously as Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation,” the Washington Post reported last May. And “Sasse served as chief of staff to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) for six months in 2005, right after Fortenberry took office.”
Sasse returned to Nebraska in 2009 to become president of Midland University. All the while he kept an eye on political opportunities. In 2014 he won a contested Senate Republican primary, punching his ticket to Washington in the overwhelmingly red state.
Since taking office Sasse has become a leading Republican voice on health care reform. With the fate of Obamacare hanging on an upcoming Supreme Court decision weighing whether federal subsidies are allowable, Sasse is the first GOP lawmaker to come up with a full-threated alternative. That’s if the Supreme Court declares Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies illegal in up to 37 states, writes Washington Examiner columnist Philip Klein:
Sasse’s solution is to adapt “Cobra,” the law that allows workers who have lost or changed jobs to maintain their health coverage for 18 months, to enable Obamacare subsidy recipients to maintain their coverage for a temporary amount of time. Unlike Cobra, however, under which individuals have to pay the full cost of their health insurance premiums, the Sasse plan would provide financial assistance.
Sasse’s Senate freshman class colleague, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, also favors repeal of Obamacare. But he has had a somewhat different focus since defeating Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in November 2014.
In that often-ugly contest Democratic groups tried to paint Gardner as out-of-the-mainstream on abortion and contraception, and hostile to immigrants. None of it worked. As a two-term House member Gardner, 40, deflected the charges with poise, and scored a surprisingly large 7-point victory over the incumbent.
And just the fact that Gardner was the Republican nominee at all reflects his political acumen. Tapped by House Republican leaders as a rising star, Gardner was initially reluctant to risk his seat for a Senate race in a state that had, until 2014, been trending Democratic.
But once Gardner decided to jump in, potential rivals bowed out. Ken Buck, the 2010 GOP Senate nominee, instead ran for Gardner’s open Eastern Colorado House seat.
And he’s a serious policy guy, too. Gardner “has become one of the House’s most active players on energy issues,” writes the 2014 Almanac of American Politics. “Representing an area that includes an ethanol plant, wind farms and solar manufactures as well as rich shale oil and natural gas deposits, he has sought to get the GOP to move beyond its fossil-fuels-first orientation.”
Sasse and Gardner are barely two months into their Senate terms. And the 2016 presidential race becomes more unsettled by the day.
Republicans are betting one of their leading contenders for the nomination will prove a formidable foe for Hillary Clinton. But the former first lady, senator from New York, and secretary of state has demographics on her side. While she’s not a very effective politician, the Electoral College favors Democrats at this point.
Democrats can afford to lose mega-states like Ohio and Florida if they can hold on to pickups from 2008 and 2012 like Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia. Simply put, Democrats have a lot more margin for error in constructing a path to victory.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Hillary Clinton does win in 2016. Sen. Gardner heading the ticket would potentially put Colorado in play. And while Sasse’s Nebraska is all-but-assured of being red, he could have broad appeal elsewhere.
There’s a long way to go. But keep an eye on these two men.
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