Ronnie Ellis

FRANKFORT – Some paid it little attention, but Mitch McConnell’s hiring of Ron and Rand Paul operative Jesse Benton to run his 2014 re-election campaign is significant.

Benton directed Rand Paul’s successful 2010 general election Senate race – he advised Paul’s primary campaign as well – and worked on Ron Paul’s presidential runs. Choosing Benton a full two years in advance of McConnell’s next campaign tells us several things.

Trey Grayson is now the head of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, but in 2010 he was McConnell’s hand-picked Senate candidate. Grayson said this week McConnell is firing an early shot across the bow of anyone thinking of challenging him in 2010, especially anyone from the right or the tea party.

McConnell already has $6 million in the bank for the race (last time he spent more than $20 million to defeat Bruce Lunsford). Putting Benton to work so early shows McConnell takes seriously the possibility of a challenge in 2014. It also shows his polling indicates the tea party is strong in Kentucky and is a force with which to be reckoned.

Phil Moffett, the tea party candidate who nearly upset David Williams in the 2011 Republican gubernatorial primary and who is managing Thomas Massie’s 4th District congressional campaign, said three separate polls in this year’s 4th District primary indicated 58 or 59 percent of the district’s Republicans self-identify as tea party Republicans.

“That taught me a lesson, and I assume McConnell’s people are polling and see the same kind of thing,” Moffett told me last month.

It is a lesson McConnell learned without the benefit of polling. In 2010 McConnell genuinely believed a Rand Paul win in the Republican primary guaranteed a Republican loss in the fall. That is the reason McConnell publicly endorsed Grayson. It wasn’t personal loyalty or philosophical allegiance. McConnell was as stunned as anyone by the Rand Paul phenomenon. It didn’t take him long to respond and adjust.

Beginning with an awkward “unity rally” he orchestrated the week after the primary vote, McConnell cozied up to Paul, offered his campaign (which included Benton) valuable advice in the general election and actively campaigned for Paul. Slowly but methodically, McConnell earned the trust of Paul and his staff.

When Paul got to the Senate and behaved as if he could single-handedly solve the country’s fiscal woes, if only the Democratic leadership would allow votes on his bills and amendments, McConnell – the Minority Leader – gave Paul room to operate. Any advice he offered his younger colleague was in private. In public, he didn’t try to restrain Paul. He also watched amazed as Paul became a darling of the national media – a “rock star” is how one McConnell operative puts it.

Paul and his camp responded. Their alliance seems real. It may be politically expedient for both, and it is, but their personal relationship appears genuine at the same time. Paul routinely praises McConnell as the man leading the charge to repeal “Obamacare,” the number one priority on the tea party wish list. McConnell calls Paul a national leader.

As Moffett observed at the time he pointed out the wisdom of McConnell’s responding to tea party sentiment, the alliance benefits Paul, too.

“You can’t win an election with just tea party and Ron Paul voters on a national basis,” Moffett said. “You’ve got to generate broader support, a broadened appeal.” And it’s clear Paul has national ambitions.

McConnell once famously said: “You have to be elected before you can be a statesman.” So while some are surprised by Benton’s hiring, they shouldn’t be.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at


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