FRANKFORT — The 2014 U.S. Senate election is 15 months away but a lot more people than Jesse Benton may be holding their noses before it’s over.
I’m talking about more than just the avalanche of negative advertising we’ll endure. By now you’ve heard about the recording on which Benton, Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager, said he was “sort of holding my nose for two years because what we’re doing here will be a benefit to Rand (Paul) in ’16.”
Benton managed Rand Paul’s 2010 general election campaign; he’s married to Paul’s niece. He worked for her grandfather, Ron Paul; he’s a member of the family.
That’s why McConnell hired him, hoping to appropriate the Paul imprimatur to attract tea party Republicans to his cause despite a record of Washington deal making which is anathema to most of them. It hasn’t entirely worked. Some Kentucky tea party groups actively encouraged the primary challenge to McConnell by Matt Bevin.
It’s not a one-sided bargain. Paul needs McConnell’s help to perform on the Senate’s grand stage, develop national stature, to gain access to big Republican donors and to acquire an image of acceptability with mainstream national Republicans in preparation for a 2016 run for president. That’s what Benton meant by saying his job with McConnell benefits Paul in 2016.
Democrats and Bevin’s supporters are giddy about the recording and the press is focused on the embarrassment it causes McConnell and what it says about his standing with tea party groups. (As of Friday, McConnell was holding his own nose, keeping Benton on board.) It all seems to validate what McConnell detractors believe — and what Bevin and Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes say — that McConnell cares only about McConnell, that hiring Benton was nothing more than pure political calculation and McConnell is just a political mercenary.
Fair enough — but doesn’t it also say something similar about Paul and what he’s willing to do to win?
Much of Paul’s appeal to his base is their belief that he is the rare politician who sticks to his principles and refuses to compromise. Many of them aren’t happy Paul warmed up to McConnell and endorsed his re-election. They reacted angrily when Paul seemed willing to back immigration reform, forcing Paul to backtrack on an issue he sees as important to widening his and his party’s appeal.
Most Paul supporters have rationalized those maneuvers as necessary evils in pursuit of the greater goal of electing Paul president and fulfilling their dreams for a second American revolution. But some of them openly ask why Paul cozies up to McConnell and appears to be trying to moderate his image on issues like immigration.
Remember, Benton isn’t just any hired political gun. He’s family. He wouldn’t have taken the job with McConnell without the blessing of both Ron and Rand Paul. His statement on the recording shows Paul’s future, not McConnell’s, is Benton’s first priority. So how difficult is it to go from believing Benton really is holding his nose to wondering if perhaps Paul must be holding his?
If the alliance with McConnell is noxious enough that Paul and his family must hold their noses then how much different is Paul from McConnell who the tea party soldiers believe will sell out principle to advance his personal agenda to attain power?
If Benton’s recorded comment shatters the façade that McConnell has won over the tea party, doesn’t it also put one another crack in the image that Rand Paul never compromises his tea party principles?
Paul must be hoping some of his supporters are willing to hold their noses, too.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort, Ky. He may be contacted by email at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort