Mitch McConnell’s troops are extending an olive branch to Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse after Sasse said Tuesday that he would “absolutely” support McConnell as Senate majority leader if the Republican conference chooses the Kentucky senator for the post. “I’m a team player and looking forward to supporting whoever our leader is,” Sasse told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd.
Praise from the McConnell camp, which vowed to oppose any candidate, including Sasse, endorsed by the insurgent Senate Conservatives Fund, was forthcoming. A McConnell ally tells National Review Online that Sasse is a “very practical conservative who’s more interested in achieving the right policy outcome than engaging in a quixotic civil war with his own party.” The Sasse campaign, for the time being, is not returning the love. “We’re focused on our get-out-the-vote operation,” says Sasse adviser Jordan Gehrke.
Ironically, it is McConnell who has been accused of stirring up the feud in Nebraska, where today’s primary pits Sasse against former state treasurer and Navy pilot Shane Osborn and businessman Sid Dinsdale.
The remarks from the McConnell camp appear to mark the easing of tensions between Sasse and McConnell. They began when the Nebraska candidate accepted the endorsement of SCF, which is also backing McConnell’s primary opponent, Matt Bevin, and when he posted a YouTube video calling on every Republican in Washington, “starting with minority leader Mitch McConnell, to show some actual leadership” on Obamacare. When Sasse met with McConnell to clear the air, sources said McConnell instead interrogated about his meetings with SCF executive director Matt Hoskins and lambasted him for his remarks in the video.
McConnell made it clear months ago that he would oppose all tea-party candidates on the ballot in 2014. He told the New York Times in March that “we are going to crush them everywhere,” adding, “I don’t think [the insurgents] are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.” Breitbart News reported in November that McConnell told a conference call of Republican donors he’d like to punch the tea-party troublemakers in the nose.
McConnell’s forces were also accused of meddling in the Nebraska primary to ensure Sasse’s defeat, a charge the McConnell ally denies. Sasse’s statement today, the McConnell ally says, demonstrates that Sasse “certainly doesn’t believe that McConnell was playing in this primary.” McConnell’s critics have pointed to the super PAC founded by former McConnell campaign manager Justin Brasell, which spent over $100,000 on advertisements and direct mail attacking Sasse, and to former McConnell chief of staff Billy Piper’s endorsement of Osborn.
“It’s no secret that Mitch McConnell and the NRSC are working behind the scenes to defeat Ben Sasse in Nebraska,” Hoskins told The Weekly Standard in March. (The NRSC says it is neutral in the race.)
The Nebraska campaign is a microcosm for the long-running feud between McConnell and SCF, founded by the minority leader’s former Senate rival Jim DeMint in 2008.
McConnell is one of the party’s savviest politicians, though, and has always accommodate himself to political reality. In Nebraska, that likely means a Sasse win: A poll conducted last week showed him opening up a 14-point lead in the race, where he is likely to seize victory on Tuesday evening. In a red state like Nebraska, the seat is a virtually sure bet to stay in Republican hands.
McConnell’s last-minute embrace of the Nebraska front-runner recalls his grudging support for another SCF-backed tea-party candidate who rode to office in the face of McConnell’s opposition: Kentucky senator Rand Paul.
Though McConnell tried to dissuade Paul from running and endorsed his primary opponent, former Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson, he gave Paul his full support when he won the nomination, sending his own aides to Kentucky to lend a hand on Paul’s campaign and hosting fundraisers on his behalf. This year, Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, is managing McConnell’s reelection campaign, and Paul has endorsed the Senate minority leader.
With Sasse’s ascension, McConnell’s ally sees a similar opportunity for another unlikely alliance. “It’s a great sign for the party,” he says. “It suggests the unity that we’ve been trying to achieve here for the past several years is more likely than not as we get closer to November.”