In the blizzard of coverage of swing seats that will ensue after next week’s election, it will be easy to overlook important new arrivals without stiff Democratic opposition—though they will have an outsized influence going forward. Take Alabama’s Gary Palmer and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, safe bets to be elected to a House seat in in Alabama and a Senate seat in Nebraska, respectively.
Palmer, an unassuming sixty-year-old white evangelical from a ruby-red Alabama district, is not the kind of candidate that gets the media excited. Yet he may well be the most important congressional freshman in recent history. Around 1980, after spending a dozen years as an engineer, Palmer felt called to political leadership after attending a conference sponsored by Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Yet unlike most of those aspiring to influence public policy, that didn’t initially translate into the desire to run for office. Instead, Palmer started what became the Alabama Policy Institute, the premier think-tank in the state, which he led for twenty-four years.
Initially dedicated to social issues, Palmer’s project became the full-spectrum conservative think tank in Alabama. The Alabama Policy Institute successfully fought a gigantic tax increase, and also successfully advocated for school vouchers, a longtime conservative goal that has been stymied even in conservative states like Utah. This is just a sampling. For more, just check their website: analysis of Alabama’s 2015 budget, papers on how to assure more freedom for local governments or how the legislature should address the state trust fund. Palmer himself has written about Medicaid, education, even Native American issues, and just about everything else you can think of. While state and federal issues are different, they are interrelated and the underlying problems and tensions are usually quite similar. Palmer also has been appointed to several state commissions over the years. When it comes to policy, he already has more knowledge and ideas than most current members of Congress.
If this wasn’t enough, in 1992 Palmer also helped found the State Policy Network, an umbrella group that helps dozens of similarly minded state think-tanks grow by sharing resources, training scholars, and teaching best practices. Furthermore, the State Policy Network provides a forum to share ideas and work together on common issues. The SPN has chocked up a series of victories, and state-level think tanks on the right have flourished. There are now sixty-five, and every state counts at least one. Palmer likes to say he’ll be the only incoming member of Congress with a fifty-state network. He’s right.
What this means is that whatever issues are before Congress, Palmer will have a pretty good handle on what’s being discussed and who the stakeholders are, and he’ll have a network of experts who know him and are use to working with him to help him develop a legislative agenda. These are things some members of Congress work for years to fully develop.
In some ways, forty-two-year-old Ben Sasse is Palmer’s mirror image. A Harvard- and Yale-educated Ph.D. in history, Sasse is more a young hotshot reaching his peak than an old hand taking on a new role. Sasse was most recently the president of Midland College, where he turned a large deficit into a large surplus and doubled the student population. However, before this, not only was he an faculty member of the University of Texas, but he served in political and policy capacities in three federal departments: Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services. Throw in stints as a management consultant and as chief of staff to Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, and you have one of the most broadly and deeply experienced public servants to take office in the Senate since Daniel Patrick Moynihan was first elected back in 1976.
Someone as young as Sasse, with such obvious gifts, can chart his own path going forward, particularly with a relatively safe Senate seat. The path he seems to want to take is one of problem-solving, with a willingness to work with anybody to achieve progress. While his positions are fairly orthodox conservative, he consistently strikes a conciliatory tone and speaks highly of working across party lines and, in an unusual move considering his seat is safe, he is specifically targeting Nebraska Hispanics, which made up only 3 percent of the electorate in 2008.
Sasse’s connections both to some of the most prominent political figures in Nebraska, in the Bush Administration, and in academia, provide him with allies as well as institutional knowledge. I’d not be surprised at all to see him travel in the steps of Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, who have consistently been churning out new, innovative legislative proposals, not many of which have yet become law, but which are changing the nature of the debate.
It is too often overlooked that Congress is not a machine, but a body of 535 individuals. When first elected, Congressman Paul Ryan was hardly noticed. He was just some smart former hill staffer who replaced another Republican in Congress. Yet his election was far more important than those of dozens of other Congressman who had just won titanic battles in difficult districts. Ryan’s intelligence, demeanor, and work ethic have made him one of the most influential members of Congress. His ideas about how to reform the federal budget have dominated the debate for the past four years and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future.
Cynics like to say that special interests drive what happens in Washington. That’s only true to the extent they are unchallenged by bold men with good ideas that can capture the minds of the public and their fellow Congressman. I suspect Palmer and Sasse will follow in the footsteps of other prominent erudite conservative idea men and challenge the status quo with the power of their ideas. Their pending elections may be a footnote in the coming media coverage, but I imagine we’ll be discussing them a lot in the years to come.