Ben Sasse is likely to accept a job as the president of the University of Florida and resign his Senate seat in the near future, according to two people familiar with the Nebraska Republican’s plans.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts would then appoint a replacement for Sasse under state law, with the seat then up for a special election in 2024. One of the people familiar with Sasse’s plans said Ricketts himself is viewed as a potential appointee for the seat.
The University of Florida confirmed Sasse’s plans in a press release Thursday that announced him as the sole finalist for the position. Given the length of the university’s process, the exact timing of his future resignation is up in the air but likely to happen this year.
Sasse said he and his wife have been “pursued by wonderful institutions the past two years, but we’ve resisted being a finalist. This time is different because the University of Florida is different: I think Florida is the most interesting university in America right now.”
The second-term Sasse made a name for himself as a consistent Donald Trump critic in Congress as well as a reliable conservative vote. Despite his interest in academia, his resignation will be a bit of a surprise after he ran for reelection in 2020 and the potential that he could one day pursue higher office.
Sasse was one of seven GOP senators to vote to convict the former president during Trump’s second impeachment trial, after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. His resignation will create a safe GOP seat in a red state; in addition to Ricketts, Nebraska GOP Reps. Don Bacon and Mike Flood may also be in the mix for the appointment.
Ricketts said that Sasse “has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, and we need more conservative voices in our universities. Senator Sasse is also incredibly smart and has the experience and a clear passion for higher education.”
As far as a potential self-appointment, Ricketts spokesperson Alex Reuss said that “we aren’t going to speculate at this point. Right now, Senator Sasse is a sitting U.S. senator, and there’s no appointment to be made.”
Sasse has been interested in an academic job for quite some time, according to Republicans familiar with his future plans. Ahead of his 2020 run, there was speculation he would seek an open position to lead the University of Nebraska; prior to running for Senate, he was president of Midland University.
In an interview in February 2021 as his state party prepared to censure him over his impeachment vote (ultimately he got reprimanded), Sasse spoke at length about his views on education — and how he thought the Democrats’ coronavirus aid package missed the mark.
“I can’t use the word progressive, I guess, but I care deeply about poverty and about the fact that lower-middle class people are not being well-served by the education establishment, either at K-12 or at the higher-ed level,” Sasse said. “And so you look at this package. Is this really to help poor kids? Hell no.”
In recent years he’s maintained a relatively low profile in the Senate, while expressing frustration with the chamber and politics more broadly. Sasse has tried at times to engage his colleagues in debate on the Senate floor, and says that serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee is the best part of his job.
He and his family agonized over whether he should even run for reelection in 2020 after his first full term in the Senate, and « everybody was between 51 percent and 75 percent that we thought this was our calling. So nobody was below 50-50. And yet nobody was like 95 percent.”
“This institution should be a lot more effective than it is. And the only part of every day that’s really effective is the Intel work,” he said in the 2021 interview.
In one of Sasse’s more high-profile moments this year, he sparred with Sen. Chris Murphy on the floor in March over the Connecticut Democrat’s tweet attacking Republicans for criticizing President Joe Biden’s handling of the Ukraine war, while voting against a government spending bill that included aid to Kyiv.
Sasse’s sherpa through the university search process was Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief of staff James Uthmeier, who was put in contact with Sasse several months ago after he quietly expressed interest in becoming UF president. Florida’s flagship university enrolls more than 55,000 students.
“He had been sending smoke signals, it was known for a while interest was there,” said a Florida Republican operative familiar with the process. “I’m not sure who got him on touch with James, but once that happened he took it from there.”
Uthmeier declined to comment.
DeSantis has no direct role in the process, but is responsible for appointing the panel that will now give final consideration to hiring Sasse. Sasse was selected as the only finalist after a national search and more than 700 candidates.
The Florida GOP-led Legislature during the 2022 session approved a bill that allows universities in the state to conduct searches for university presidents outside of Florida’s public records and open meetings laws.
In addition to his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sasse this year worked with a bipartisan group of senators to reform the 1887 Electoral Count Act, a response to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. He is one of the original GOP co-sponsors of the bill.
« Ben is a good and smart and principled person, » said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). « I can hardly think of an issue on which we agreed but he is someone whom I respect for always standing by the courage of his conviction for always being thoughtful and for standing up for the rule of law. »
A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sasse recently attended Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s investiture ceremony, despite voting against her nomination.
In a statement shortly after, Sasse said he wouldn’t attack the credibility of the court and wished “more of my colleagues would take a similar approach.”
“America doesn’t work when partisans try to burn down our institutions,” he said.
Some details of Sasse’s future were first reported by a former aide, Ian Swanson, who has his own show on 1110 KFAB.
Matt Dixon contributed to this story.