Sasse in tough spot over McConnell support

 

Ben Sasse, the newly-minted Republican nominee for Senate in Nebraska, signaled he’s not the Senate’s next Ted Cruz with a cordial call to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after his victory Tuesday night.

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“Ben called Sen. McConnell and offered his support to him last night immediately after AP called the race,” a source close to McConnell told The Hill.

The source added that “it was a kind gesture and one that was appreciated and reciprocated.”

The call came despite McConnell’s reported opposition to Sasse’s candidacy. During the campaign, there was a tense meeting between the two. There, McConnell reportedly slammed Sasse for his criticism of GOP leaders and his support from the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is backing McConnell’s primary challenger. Subsequently, a number of McConnell’s allies helped former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, Sasse’s main rival in the race.

Most recently, an outside group with ties to McConnell invested $207,000 in attack ads hammering Sasse.

The frontrunner had initially declined to answer questions about whether he’d back McConnell for Republican leader if elected, but on Thursday morning he indicated he was hoping to bury the hatchet by declaring, when asked on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown,” that he’d “absolutely” be comfortable supporting McConnell as leader.

The McConnell source told The Hill the call indicates the narrative surrounding Sasse and McConnell’s conflict in the race was overblown.

“It also underscores the fact the reported feuding between camps was used more as a campaign tactic than reality. McConnell never had any involvement in Nebraska's Senate race either explicitly or implicitly, as he has in many other competitive primaries this cycle,” the source said.

But a source close to Sasse told Breitbart, a conservative news site, that the call went differently than the McConnell source recounted.

"The subject of backing him for leader in an intra-party race never came up," the source told Breitbart. "Ben will not be endorsing anyone until after the election."

Sasse’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill.

But the murkiness surrounding the call underscores the tightrope Sasse may have to walk when he gets to the Hill, and perhaps even before. In the heavily conservative state, Sasse is all but assured a win this fall. 

He swept the endorsements of nearly every national conservative organization and figure that weighed in on the race because he was seen as a conservative in the mold of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a firebrand willing to stand up to the establishment but one with substance.

A conciliatory call to McConnell, pledging unquestioning support for him as leader, would likely frustrate conservatives who supported Sasse as the next Ted Cruz — particularly FreedomWorks, a group that switched its endorsement from Osborn to Sasse after it was revealed Osborn was receiving help from McConnell’s allies.

But a memo issued Tuesday night by advisers to Sasse’s campaign indicates the senator may be more in the mold of the well-respected and wonkish former New York congressman Jack Kemp than Cruz, as the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis points out.

The memo reads: “Conservatives will be thrilled with Ben Sasse as a US Senator if they are looking for a leader who will propose and fight for conservative solutions from a constitutional perspective, but they shouldn’t expect him to adopt an instinctual reaction of ‘no’; nor should they expect that he will go out of his way to annoy establishment GOP leaders.”

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