McConnell and Sasse Bury the Hatchet, Sort Of

by Eliana Johnson

Ben Sasse called Mitch McConnell on Tuesday evening, and the Senate minority leader congratulated the newly minted Republican Senate nominee on his come-from-behind victory in a hard-fought primary. Sasse rose from relative obscurity to win nearly 50 percent of the vote, leaving the Kentucky senator with little choice, if he is serious about retaking the Senate in November, about making a peace offering.  

The relationship between Sasse and McConnell has been tense, but sources say McConnell made it clear on Tuesday he wanted to talk, and Sasse was receptive. A Nebraska source familiar with the conversation describes it as brief and ”positive, but not long.”

McConnell, says the source, offered his congratulations, and Sasse told the minority leader he is willing to campaign for any Republican candidate and wants to help the party reclaim a Senate majority. 

Sasse surprised many observers Tuesday morning by apparently telling MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that he would support McConnell as majority leader, given that a handful of former McConnell aides had worked throughout the primary to stir up opposition to him and promote his opponent, former Navy pilot and state treasurer Shane Osborn. But Sasse didn’t actually go that far, committing only not to oppose the will of the Republican conference. “I’m a team player and looking forward to supporting whoever our leader is,” he said. Todd followed up: “You’re comfortable enough supporting McConnell if he is the one the conference puts up as leader?” Sasse assented. 

The Nebraska primary was a battleground in the ongoing war within the Republican party between the GOP’s establishment forces and tea-party insurgents, but there was no mention of that in last night’s conversation. (Sasse, though backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, both known for endorsing insurgent candidates, also has some establishment credentials: He is a former Bush-administration staffer and has a Yale Ph.D.) 

If there was no overt hostility in last night’s chat, then it went better than the last conversation between the two, which took place last November in McConnell’s Senate office. There, the Senate minority leader reportedly pummeled Sasse for working with the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has endorsed McConnell’s primary opponent, and for posting a YouTube video critical of Senate Republicans. A McConnell aide, according to a National Review Online report, called it “the most uncomfortable meeting he’d been in.” 

Sasse wasn’t McConnell’s preferred candidate, but he’s the Republican nominee. So now, one of the GOP’s rising stars and one of its longtime leaders are embracing each other — coolly, cautiously, and with a dose of skepticism. We’ve seen this before.