WASHINGTON — Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse is the sole finalist to become president of the University of Florida, the school said Thursday, and the Republican senator indicated he will take the job — meaning he will likely resign in the coming weeks.
The school said in a statement that its presidential search committee had unanimously recommended Sasse, a decision that will have to be be voted on by the school’s board of trustees and then confirmed by the board of governors. He is to visit the campus on Monday to meet with students, faculty and other members of the university community, the school said.
In a statement released by the school, Sasse said he was “thrilled about the opportunity to work alongside one of the nation’s most outstanding faculties.”
Sasse will be one of several Republican critics of former President Donald Trump who won’t be returning to Congress next year -– and one of many who paid a price back home for his antagonism. Though Sasse isn’t up for reelection until 2026, he has faced heavy criticism from members of his state party. And the academic, sometimes acerbic senator who once seemed headed for a presidential run became sidelined amid his party’s embrace of the former president.
Sasse’s expected resignation is unlikely to affect the balance of the 50-50 Senate, as Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts would appoint a successor if Sasse resigns before Jan. 3. If Sasse were to leave the Senate after that, when Ricketts retires and leaves office, his successor would appoint Sasse’s replacement. Republican Jim Pillen is heavily favored to win that governor's race.
Sasse was president of Midland University, a Christian school in eastern Nebraska, before he ran for the Senate.
In a tweet, Sasse said he had been pursued by other universities but “this time is different because the University of Florida is very different.”
“If UF wants to go big, I'm excited about the wide range of opportunities,” he said.
Sasse is a second-term senator who has had a complicated relationship with Republicans in his own state after his outspoken criticism of Trump. He was one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict the former president of “incitement of insurrection” after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
Nebraska Republicans reprimanded Sasse but stopped short of censuring him after the impeachment trial. The state GOP’s Central Committee passed a resolution last February expressing “deep disappointment and sadness” about Sasse’s approach to his work in the Senate. The state party urged him to represent “the people of Nebraska to Washington and not Washington to the people of Nebraska.”
At the time, Sasse brushed off the criticism from his party and noted his conservative voting record in the Senate. He said Nebraska party activists were “hacked off” that he condemned Trump’s statements to a crowd just before the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
After voting to convict Trump, Sasse said he had “promised to speak out when a president – even of my own party – exceeds his or her powers.”
“I cannot go back on my word, and Congress cannot lower our standards on such a grave matter, simply because it is politically convenient,” he said. "I must vote to convict.”
In March 2016, the Nebraska GOP’s Central Committee did censure him for his criticism of then-candidate Trump. In 2019, Sasse toned down that criticism when he was running for reelection against a pro-Trump primary challenger. Trump later endorsed Sasse, saying he had done a “wonderful job” representing Nebraska.
A year later, though, Trump called on Republicans to replace Sasse after he criticized him again.
Sasse’s replacement would serve two years ahead of a 2024 special election for the seat. The winner of that election would then have to run again in 2026, when Sasse’s term expires.
Nebraska’s other senator, Deb Fischer, is up for re-election in 2024, so Nebraska would have two Senate seats to vote on that year.
Of the seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment in 2021, two others are retiring. In the House, eight of the ten Republicans who voted for impeachment are either retiring or lost their primaries.
Sasse, who has degrees from Harvard and Yale, worked in the Justice Department and as an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush before he became president of Midland University. Midland is a small university based in Fremont, Nebraska, that has just over 1,600 students.
Rahul Patel, chair of the Florida search committee that is recommending Sasse for the job, said he "brings intellectual curiosity, a belief in the power and potential of American universities and an unmatched track record of leadership spanning higher education, government and the private sector.”
Gov. Ricketts wished Sasse luck in a statement after the school’s announcement.
Sasse “has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, and we need more conservative voices in our universities,” Ricketts said.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report. Funk contributed from Omaha.