Earlier today, a candidate in the race for the Republican nomination for a Nebraska Senate race gave an interview on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown show with Chris Todd:
Ben Sasse was asked about his high-profile dispute with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He was asked if he’d support McConnell for Majority Leader and Sasse responded that he wasn’t terribly interested in speculation but that he was for “better conservative ideas and more winsome persuasion and getting to a majority”; that he was a team player and looking forward to supporting “whoever” our leader is. When pressed about whether that would include McConnell, if the Republican conference chose him, Sasse said “absolutely.”
Some quick background. Last fall, Ben Sasse had called on “every Republican in Washington, starting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to show some actual leadership.” He’d also been endorsed by and received the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a conservative group pushing for more conservative policies and candidates than what you might find in GOP leadership.
Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made no secret about his disdain for such groups and you can read all about it in a New York Times story headlined “Leading Republicans Move to Stamp Out Challenges From Right.”
“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” Mr. McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said in an interview, referring to the network of activist organizations working against him and two Republican incumbents in Kansas and Mississippi while engaging in a handful of other contests. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”
And just last week, as Mark Hemingway (who I’m related to by marriage) reported in a story entitled “Super PAC with McConnell Ties Attacking Nebraska Tea Party Candidate Ben Sasse.”:
With the Nebraska Republican Senate primary a week from tomorrow, outside money is flowing into the state to take down the race’s frontrunner, Midland University president Ben Sasse. And the provenance of the money attacking Sasse is especially curious–a super PAC with strong ties to senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
The Nebraska primary is today, so we don’t yet know who will win, although Sasse was showing a strong lead in some polling (the results, which were posted by Sasse-supportive groups, showed him up by 14 points over his nearest challenger).
Some folks are trying to make a big deal out of Sasse’s mild remarks from the show this morning. The Wall Street Journal overstated it a tad with “Nebraska Senate Hopeful Ben Sasse Backs McConnell.” Also:
— Taylor Scott Haulsee (@HaulseeDC) May 13, 2014
— Dean Clancy (@DeanClancy) May 13, 2014
Of course, what’s really interesting here isn’t that Sasse could work with McConnell. Read the top of this National Review Online report from November of last year in which he tried to make peace with the powerful leader of the Senate:
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.”
Sasse is being absolutely consistent.
So it’s in this context we see some interesting tweets from establishment figures who suggest that this race was never about conservatives vs. the establishment:
Those framing #NEsen as tea party vs establishment referendum are trying to exploit conservatives. It isn’t. May the best candidate win.
— Brad Dayspring (@BDayspring) May 13, 2014
Anyone calling the #NESen primary a “tea party vs establishment” fight clearly hasn’t been following the race – at all.
— Brian Walsh (@brianjameswalsh) May 13, 2014
It’s actually in all likelihood true that both Shane Osborn (another contender) and Sasse are conservative candidates who are also team players. But it’s not true that this wasn’t a proxy war on that same issue, as noted above. You can also read about the funding disparities in this Tim Carney piece in the Washington Examiner, “K Street and Tea Party in Nebraska proxy war.”
So the news today is not that Sasse has remained consistent in his pledge to be a team player, albeit a conservative one. The news is that the establishment seems to be coming to terms with the possibility that conservative insurgents are notching a win in a tough race. Whether they’ll be able to successfully craft a narrative that, whatever the outcome, it represents an establishment win — that’s another question entirely.