While UF student and faculty protesters stomped on the floors of Emerson Alumni Hall in opposition of Sen. Ben Sasse Oct. 10, other more conservative UF students are interested in getting to know the university presidential finalist a bit better.
Although Sasse has piqued their interest with his political beliefs, he’s not the conservative representation they expected.
Sasse was critical of Trump’s administration, and his disagreement with Trump got him in trouble with Nebraska Republican supporters. Sasse also voted to impeach Trump during his second impeachment trial.
Some students like Harrison Feld, a member of the UF Young Americans for Freedom, knew of Sasse from his politics on Capitol Hill. He admittedly wasn’t expecting the presidential search committee to choose someone from Nebraska, Feld said.
But in the end, he just wants someone who’s going to improve the school, Feld said. Maintaining UF’s top five public university status is important to him, the 20-year-old UF political science junior added.
“Obviously, I'm going to like him,” Feld said. “He’s a Republican. He's not the best Republican, but he’s there.”
Students who are protesting Sasse don’t have to worry about his politics, Feld said, because he doesn’t think Sasse is a “far-right kind of guy.”
“He’s entitled to his own beliefs,” he said. “As long as he’s fair, I don’t see the problem. I don't think he's gonna go on a crusade against the LGBTQ students on campus.”
Abby Streetman, a 22-year-old UF biology senior and Turning Point USA member, said she doesn’t consider herself Republican or Democrat.
Streetman was following UF’s presidential search closely because she worked as a university intern last year, she said.
She hoped the search would produce a candidate who’s passionate about academics, has experience in academics and would contribute to a pleasant overall environment, she said. Her pick would be someone who will interact with the student body as much as possible and be vocal about campus issues.
“Overall, I respect [the search committee’s] decision,” Streetman said. “I know that it couldn't have been easy, and I know that they knew they were going to face backlash because of this decision.”
Sasse’s political experience could help him as a university president, Streetman said.
“Politics goes hand in hand with education nowadays,” she said. “University presidents have to deal with politics pretty much every day. That's a huge part of their job.”
But Streetman has faith Sasse will put politics aside for the sake of the university’s environment, she said.
“I don't think that he's going to try and change anything about the way that our community functions at the moment,” she said.
Some conservatives on campus want Sasse to continue to be outspoken on his politics — even if he doesn’t meet some of their expectations.
Vince Dao, a 19-year-old conservative commentator and marketing sophomore, said he thinks Sasse isn’t conservative enough.
“I’ve always seen Ben Sasse as weak — as a neoconservative,” Dao said. “I think he’s weak. I think he’s always been a pushover. From a right-wing perspective, I’m really not a fan of the guy.”
Dao has made commentary videos on conservative topics since he was 15 years old. He now has more than 77,100 followers on Instagram and 17,800 subscribers on Youtube.
Dao considers Sasse as an inadequate representation of his conservative beliefs, which is why the 300-person protest of Sasse’s Oct. 10 campus visit came as a surprise to him, he said.
“It just goes to show you that no matter how hard a conservative or right-wing person tries to cave to the left or appease the left, they're still gonna get the same angry response of hatred and vitriol,” Dao said. “The best thing conservatives can do is just stand firm because that way, at least we’ll get something done.”
Dao doesn’t agree with Sasse’s views on immigration, trade and foreign policy issues.
“I think it’s better than if we had a complete leftist as president,” Dao said. “But I’m not sure I would call it a win. It’s lukewarm at best.”
Kevin Smith, political science department chair of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, recalls Sasse’s first days in politics.
“I think he was viewed as a rising star within the Republican Party,” Smith said. “He was young; he was smart. I mean, he's got a Yale PhD. ”
There were even whispers during his senatorial term of him being a future presidential candidate and vice presidential candidate, Smith said. Clearly, the trajectory of his political career has not followed those early expectations, Smith added.
Sasse was considered a loyal Republican despite criticizing Trump’s administration, he said.
“That upset quite a few Republicans in Nebraska,” Smith said. “He's a dyed in the wool conservative but to get along in the Republican Party these days, you have to express some degree of fealty to Donald Trump. And Senator Sass was always clearly uncomfortable with that.”
Still, Sasse checks off many boxes that align with conservative policy, Smith said.
Sasse’s 2014 Senate campaign centered on his opposition to Obamacare. He was opposed to gay marriage and abortion, and he was endorsed twice by the National Rifle Association.
He was reelected in 2020, winning the general election in a landslide 67.39% of the vote. Sasse received 40 percentage points more than the Democratic candidate Chris Janicek, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“Even though he won overwhelmingly,” Smith said, “you could kind of sense that the MAGA loyalists in the Nebraska Republican camp weren't super happy with him.”
Sasse might have sensed the party was turning against him and seeking a representative who expresses a much stronger commitment to the Trump loyalists, Smith said. But that shouldn’t have been a concern for Sasse because he wasn’t far into his term and had years left as a senator, Smith added.
Smith can see the connection between Sasse’s academic past and his return to academics, he said, but there was no indication Sasse would make the break from politics.
However, Sasse did, and although some conservative students are confused by his switch from politics to academics, they agree he’s the man for the job.
Contact Jiselle at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jiselle_lee.
Jiselle Lee is a journalism junior and The Alligator’s features and investigations editor. Previously, she was a reporter for NextShark and a news intern at The Bradenton Herald. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting and going to the beach.