LINCOLN, Nebraska–Contrary to some reports, the tension between Nebraska GOP Senate nominee Ben Sasse and Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) does not seem to be over.
McConnell and Sasse feuded in the fall, with McConnell upset about Sasse’s involvement with the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that is backing Matt Bevin, McConnell’s primary opponent in Kentucky. In the last weeks of the campaign, a super PAC run by the same aides operating a pro-McConnell super PAC went on the air with ads attacking Sasse.
Following Sasse’s big victory in Nebraska, the two spoke briefly on the phone. It was cordial, and Sasse reiterated his commitment to do everything he could to help win a Republican majority in the Senate in November.
But the two did not discuss a GOP leadership race, a source close to Sasse with knowledge of the call said. “The subject of backing him for leader in an intra-party race never came up,” the source said. “Ben will not be endorsing anyone until after the election.”
Back in November, Sasse had heard McConnell was under the impression that he had vowed to oppose him as leader as a condition of his SCF endorsement. Hoping to clear the air, he asked for a meeting and headed to Washington. It did not go particularly well. The call tonight was the first the two have spoken since then.
While the National Republican Senatorial Committee did not enter the race, a number of McConnell allies worked to help Sasse’s opponent, Shane Osborn, including lobbyist Billy Piper, McConnell’s former chief of staff.
Earlier today, Sasse was asked if he would support McConnell as leader on MSNBC. Initially, he deflected the question.
“You know, we’ve said from the beginning of this race that the voters of Nebraska get to make their choice today, and we don’t deal with speculative stuff, a little out in front. But obviously, I’m for better conservative ideas and more winsome persuasion and getting to a majority, so obviously I’m a team player and looking forward to support whoever our leader is,” he said.
Host Chuck Todd then asked if Sasse would be “comfortable” supporting McConnell if that’s who the Senate Republican caucus supported as their leader. “Absolutely,” he said. Notably, supporting McConnell after he wins a leadership race is a different thing than voting for him in a leadership election.
Generally speaking, Sasse has not sought to portray himself as a rival to GOP leaders or as a player in the “civil war” between the Tea Party and the GOP Establishment. But the ill-feelings between the Sasse and McConnell camps are real.