By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
That may be the thinking of Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell who announced Thursday that Jesse Benton will manage his 2014 re-election bid.
Benton, 34, managed the 2010 general election campaign of Kentucky’s other Republican U.S. Senator, Rand Paul, a tea party and liberty movement favorite. Benton also previously worked in campaigns for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Rand Paul’s father who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for president.
The move may surprise those who remember McConnell supported Rand Paul’s 2010 Republican primary opponent Trey Grayson. That alienated tea party and liberty movement supporters of the two Pauls, but McConnell moved quickly after that primary to cozy up to Rand Paul
While the relationship seemed cool at first, the two men have forged a closer relationship. In recent appearances in Kentucky, each has praised the other, and McConnell praised Rand Paul during a speech at the Republican National Convention.
McConnell said Thursday that Benton is “literally the best” at running grass-roots campaigns.
“We’re committed to running a presidential-level campaign in Kentucky and that starts with a presidential campaign manager,” said Senator Mitch McConnell. “Jesse is literally the best in the business at building and organizing conservative grassroots movements and I’m thrilled he’s chosen to return to Kentucky to lead my campaign.”
Benton returned the praise.
“It is a real honor to join Senator McConnell’s team. I look forward to playing my part in re- electing a great leader who can truly unite a broad coalition of Americans and get out country back on track.”
Grayson, now the Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, said the hire is a “brilliant move. Benton is really talented.”
Grayson said McConnell’s timing is also brilliant.
“Hiring Benton this early is a shot across the bow of any potential candidate — Republican or Democrat — about how serious McConnell is taking this race,” said Grayson. “He’s basically saying to anyone looking at running. I’m going to be ready, and I am going to crush you if you dare enter this race.It also gives Benton time to build up relationships with the key McConnell supporters across the state that he didn’t meet in the 2010 general election.”
Mica Sims, a tea party activist and one-time blogger who is now Rand Paul’s 6th Congressional District field representative, hasn’t always viewed McConnell as friendly to tea party philosophy. But she thinks his hiring of Benton is smart.
“Obviously, it is a very good move on Sen. McConnell’s part because he recognizes the activism within the tea party and liberty movements,” Sims said. She also saw it as an affirmation of tea party strength.
“Many Democrats and even some Republicans have said the tea party is done, and obviously this means Sen. McConnell recognizes it’s not,” she said. “He’s reaching out to the tea party and that’s a very good step in the right direction.”
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said Benton’s hiring “signals Sen. McConnell’s surrender to the tea party is complete.
“With every step he takes toward the right wing of the Republican Party, the less viable he becomes,” Logsdon said. “I think he’s incredibly vulnerable in 2014.”
Benton is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter, Valerie Pyeatt. On Monday of this week Benton resigned from Campaign for Liberty, a grass roots organization launched by Ron Paul and his supporters after his 2008 run for president.
“After much soul searching, I have decided that my passion lies in direct electoral politics, and I plan to work on campaigns rather than resume my work in grassroots advocacy. Ron Paul, Benton said, supports his decision to work for McConnell.
Benton was communications director for the elder Paul’s 2008 presidential primary campaign and managed the 2012 campaign. He has occasionally been criticized by some in the tea party for working with establishment Republicans like McConnell and for Rand Paul’s endorsement of Mitt Romney for president while Ron Paul remained in the race.
Benton agreed his hiring probably surprises some people, people across the political spectrum from conservative tea party types to establishment Republicans to Democrats.
“We wanted to surprise some people,” Benton said. He said McConnell “really is a consensus building leader who realizes the importance of the tea party and wants to bring them into the party and make their voices heard.”
As the U.S. Senate Minority Leader — and perhaps Majority Leader depending on the outcome of Nov. 6 elections – McConnell will be a target for the national and Kentucky Democratic parties in 2014. Some speculate he might face a primary challenge from the right as happened to Richard Lugar in Indiana and Bob Bennett in Utah, two Republican incumbents defeated by tea party Republicans in their respective primaries.
That is the scenario Democrats dream about: a defeat for McConnell in his own primary or a financially weakened McConnell after a bruising primary. Benton’s hiring gives McConnell some tea party credentials which may help head off a primary challenge.
“I hope it helps,” Benton said. “I think the most important thing I can help do is to point out Sen. McConnell’s record. I can point out his rock-solid, unwavering support of the First Amendment that goes back 40 years over his career. I can point out that he’s leading the effort to repeal Obamacare in the United States Senate.”
McConnell’s determination is evidenced by Benton’s plan to move to Kentucky by Jan. 1.
“I’m actually here today, house hunting with my family,” Benton said Thursday morning. “We’re planning on moving up here on Jan. 1. That might tip you off how seriously we’re taking this campaign.”
Benton was reluctant to view his hiring as a way for McConnell to head off a primary challenge from the tea party.
“At this point we don’t anticipate a primary,” he said. “But we’re going ahead and forging friendships and making sure those people in the tea party know that Sen. McConnell is a friend and advocate for them. It’s unlikely but if there is some sort of primary challenge, we’re ready to take all comers.”
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.
By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
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