It was a little disconcerting when Ben Sasse, the man most likely to be Nebraska’s next senator, dropped down and did 60 push-ups. There was almost no warning this was about to happen, and it happened on board the campaign’s RV, aka “The Benebago,” cruising down a lonely road in the western part of the state. One of his campaign staffers joined him in the effort, though with four other people on board, there wasn’t much room for one person to hit the deck, let alone two. Lest anyone think this strange, Sasse’s loyal campaign strategist and push-up partner cracks wise: “We decided it would be awkward if one of us did push-ups, but if two people do it, we’ve created a subculture.”
The truth is that it’s hard to stay in shape in the middle of a political campaign, with the long hours and omnipresent fast food. As for Sasse’s campaign style, well, the push-ups are all part of the plan. Sasse’s Democratic opponent, Dave Domina, is arguably the most prominent trial lawyer in the state and worth somewhere between $20 million and $82 million according to his financial disclosure forms. Everywhere Sasse goes, he promises voters, “We may be outspent, but we will not be outworked.”
Sasse isn’t kidding. He’s vowed to be the only guy in Nebraska history (as far as the campaign can tell) to stump in all 93 counties in a general election. If you’re familiar with Nebraska, what this means for campaign logistics is something between a slog and a waking nightmare. The Benebago hits a motel around 11 that night and is on the road again at 5:30 a.m. so Sasse can gladhand employees punching in at dawn at a Cabela’s distribution center. It only gets more hectic from there. Eleven-and-a-half hours of drive time that day, not counting the campaign stops—a radio interview, two high school football games, a trip to a state park, and several visits to places that can’t be found on Google Maps. Sasse’s RV is chasing down potential voters in counties larger than Rhode Island with populations of just over 1,000.
Sasse’s high-energy strategy appears to be working. A poll that came out September 2 has him up 26 points over Domina, but he’s not taking anything for granted. Last fall, Sasse had 3 percent name ID in the state. His primary opponent, Shane Osborn, had the backing and resources of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The Omaha World-Herald endorsed Sid Dinsdale, a wealthy businessman. Sasse didn’t run a single negative ad despite being pummeled by his opponents. And then he stunned every observer in the country by capturing 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race, besting Dinsdale by 27 points and winning the vote in 92 of 93 counties.
Sasse didn’t come from nowhere. He’s a two-time Bush appointee, notably a former assistant secretary of health and human services. His health policy knowledge is encyclopedic, and he’s one of the foremost experts on Obamacare. He worked for Boston Consulting Group and has successfully dabbled in private equity. He attended Harvard, Oxford, and Yale. He taught politics at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. In 2009, at age 37, he became president of Midland University in his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska. The college was on the verge of bankruptcy, and in a few years Sasse reformed tenure, doubled enrollment, and turned it into the fastest-growing college in the Midwest.
Sasse has considerable gifts, to be sure. But it wasn’t his résumé that stunned the political establishment. It was his grit. His work ethic is not in doubt, and his time management strategies are legendary. (Typical email: “Can I call you? I have some time between 11:47 and 11:54.”) Fortunately, Sasse is far from humorless about all this. The Benebago is adorned with tchotchkes from a year’s worth of Nebraska adventures—shotgun shell Christmas lights, a stuffed pheasant on the dash, a Photoshopped poster of Sasse as Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The campaign staffers in tow seem to tolerate Sasse’s mildly insane ideas about campaigning because they like being around him.