On Tuesday, November 12, Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse walked into Mitch McConnell’s office to clear the air. Contrary to the rumors, Sasse wanted to say, he hadn’t secretly vowed to oppose McConnell’s leadership if elected. In fact, he hadn’t been asked to make such a pledge and would never have even considered it.
That was the plan, anyway.
As soon as Sasse sat down, McConnell lit into him, criticizing him for working with the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) as well as for posting a viral YouTube video in which he demanded “every Republican in Washington, starting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to show some actual leadership.”
Republicans in Washington familiar with these kinds of sessions say the Kentucky Republican’s specialty is long, tension-filled pauses. But even for McConnell, this was awkward. Josh Holmes, McConnell’s top political hand, privately told friends afterward it was the most uncomfortable meeting he’d been in.
Following the initial exchange came a series of questions about exactly when Sasse had first interacted with Matt Hoskins, the hard-charging executive director of SCF working to elect McConnell’s primary challenger, Matt Bevin, in Kentucky.
Sasse’s answers, several Republicans familiar with the episode say, did nothing to mitigate the minority leader’s anger.
As he walked out of the room, Sasse turned to Holmes — “That didn’t go well!”
The nation’s youngest university president (Nebraska’s Midland University), Sasse has become the latest collateral damage in a GOP civil war between McConnell and Holmes, on the one side, and Matt Hoskins and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, Hoskins’s political godfather.
After Hoskins invaded enemy territory October 18 in backing Bevin, McConnell has launched a campaign against his vendors, his allies, and candidates he has endorsed — beginning with a blacklisting of GOP ad firm Jamestown Associates.
Last week, for example, pressure from McConnell allies convinced SCF’s bookkeeper, Lisa Lisker, to part ways with the group. Lisker has previously worked for Republican candidates locked in tense primary elections without incident, sources say.
But with Majority Leader Harry Reid detonating the nuclear option in the background, the notion that his accountant had become part of an intra-GOP war incensed Hoskins. “It’s amazing that the Senate Republican leader is now bullying bookkeepers in his war on conservatives, but it won’t stop us from supporting Matt Bevin,” he says.
McConnell’s camp was likewise livid with Hoskins when SCF improbably blamed him for Reid’s actions, saying “Harry Reid did this because he knows Republican Leader Mitch McConnell will let him get away with it” in an e-mail to the group’s supporters.
McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore’s on-the-record response was unusually caustic. “That argument is so profoundly stupid that it is hard to fully ascertain whether their deficiency is in math or logic,” she told the Daily Caller.
Meanwhile, Breitbart News reported that McConnell exclaimed he wanted to punch tea-party “bullies . . . in the nose” on an October 30 conference call organized by American Crossroads.
Crossroads brought Washington Examiner reporter Charlie Spiering to its offices to review the audio, showing McConnell had said he wanted to punch SCF specifically in the nose. That’s more in line with McConnell’s aims, which aides explain is to isolate the Hoskins group.
The Breitbart story triggered Tea Party Patriots president Jenny Beth Martin to issue a scathing comment about McConnell as well as make private vows to take further action.
Of all these incidents, however, the Sasse episode is most notable because it involves an attractive, promising candidate in an open primary as collateral damage in the intramural fight..
Sasse’s YouTube video calling out McConnell by name — one of several Sasse videos prominently featured on the Drudge Report — came out September 23. But insiders say the bad blood between Sasse and McConnell escalated several weeks ago at a meeting between Sasse and National Republican Senatorial Committee political director Ward Baker.
There Sasse delivered a pitch that included suggesting he was the “smartest” candidate in the race. As a university president with an undergrad degree from Harvard, Ph.D. from Yale, and several prestigious academic awards to his name, it’s understandable why the candidate would think that.
His rivals, though, have begun to parody the claim, forwarding around an e-mail his fundraising consultant sent October 30 with the subject line “Take a Chance on Smart.” (“Sometimes, like when you meet your future spouse, you just know you’ve found the one,” the e-mail gushes; campaign officials subsequently asked the consultant to stop using the appeal.) Asked about Sasse at a recent D.C. fundraiser, McConnell deadpanned that “he’s definitely smart.” The subsequent meeting between the two went terribly. But McConnell has yet to provide active assistance to Sasse’s chief rival in the race, Shane Osborn. Osborn, a decorated veteran who was piloting the spy plane forced down by a Chinese fighter jet in 2001, would undoubtedly appreciate the help. But the former pilot, critics note, sought SCF’s endorsement, too.
By all accounts, Sasse — whom The Weekly Standard recently heralded as being able to bridge the divide between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party — never wanted a fight with McConnell. In 2013, however, it’s becoming clear that being Switzerland isn’t really an option.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.