Walking toward his Capitol office on Thursday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell ran into Wyoming senator John Barrasso, who had a friend in tow: Ben Sasse, the tea-party-backed nominee who recently won Nebraska’s Senate primary and is all but a lock to win the general election in November.
Sasse ducked into McConnell’s office for a private meeting that a Sasse adviser describes as “very warm.” That’s a sharp contrast to a meeting the two had in the same office last November, when McConnell chastised Sasse for working with the Senate Conservatives Fund, which had endorsed McConnell’s primary opponent, the businessman Matt Bevin, and for posting a video to YouTube in which Sasse criticized Republicans, including the minority leader. The latest meeting came after Sasse, the president of Nebraska’s Midland University, donated $2,000 to McConnell the evening the minority leader trounced the tea-party-backed Bevin.
The shifting allegiances reflect shifting realities. Though Sasse’s Nebraska primary became a microcosm for the long-simmering feud between McConnell and the Senate Conservatives Fund, founded in 2008 by McConnell rival Jim DeMint, both sides now appear willing to put the past behind them. At the outset of the midterm-election season, McConnell vowed to oppose all tea-party candidates, telling the New York Times in March that “we are going to crush them everywhere”; now, McConnell will attend a Washington, D.C., fundraiser for the Nebraska nominee.
Sasse is quickly making inroads in the Capitol. He lunched on Thursday with the Senate Republican Steering Committee, joining the coalition of senators that promotes conservative policy ideas for their weekly meal. The group is chaired by Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey, who took the mantle from South Carolina’s Jim DeMint.
Sasse’s friendship with Barrasso is telling, too: The Wyoming senator, who serves as vice chairman of the Republican Senate conference, had one of the fastest ascents to party leadership in recent history; he assumed the position just three years after his election.