When Jesse Benton was approached about becoming Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager for the 2014 election, he quickly reached out to one person: Rand Paul.
Benton has longstanding and deep ties with the Paul clan. He was a top aide on both of Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, and he served as campaign manager for Rand Paul’s victorious, rookie Senate campaign in 2010. And his wife, Valori, is Ron Paul’s granddaughter.
It was a smart, strategic move for McConnell: Benton’s years with the Pauls gives the Senate minority leader credibility with the Tea Party, and Benton has years of practice reaching out to and working with the grassroots. Now as McConnell faces a conservative challenger, Kentucky investment manager Matt Bevin, Benton — who considers himself to be a member of the Tea Party — is a key resource.
John Tate, president of Ron Paul’s organization Campaign for Liberty, says it’s possible Benton could help persuade some tea partiers to vote for McConnell. And it doesn’t hurt that Rand Paul himself has endorsed McConnell. “I think there are those in the liberty movement that are willing to maybe follow Rand’s lead or others’ and give [McConnell] a second look,” Tate, who worked closely with Benton on Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, says. But “there are those that will never give him a second look,” he adds.
Benton himself argues that McConnell, who received a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, is a serious conservative. “Back in the Nineties, when I was reading National Review in my college dorm, Mitch McConnell was the cool conservative senator,” he says. “He was like the Tom Coburn back then. He had a little maverick in him, and he took strong conservative stances, and he filibustered stuff.”
And the senator hasn’t changed, Benton says: “He’s the most conservative member of the Republican leadership since the Bob Taft crew in the Fifties.”
Unsurprisingly, some Ron and Rand fans were unhappy with Benton’s decision. But Benton — who received his share of death threats, including at least one that mentioned his wife and child, during the second Ron Paul presidential campaign — is no stranger to controversy. And it hasn’t ruined the relationship, Tate says. “Among a lot of our best activists,” he observes, Benton’s “still got a fairly good reputation, despite going to work for McConnell, which some of them didn’t like.”
“I don’t doubt his commitment to the cause,” he explains.
And Benton sees his work for McConnell as serving the cause: He’s motivated in part by the idea of uniting the various factions in the GOP to achieve policy goals. “It’s a really, really important mission to bring all Republicans and conservatives together,” he says earnestly. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell’s partnership, he explains, is an example of how to do that.
“They both have tremendous cross-party appeal, but they each tend to draw their core of support from a certain wing of the party,” Benton says. “When they come together and help each other with the crossover support from across the party, I think it sets an example to Republicans across the country about how it can be. We can disagree on some things, but still really work together.”
Benton is also inspired by the idea of what McConnell could do as Senate majority leader if he is re-elected and Republicans take back the Senate in 2014. “Mitch McConnell as a conservative, as majority leader, setting the agenda in the United States Senate would be huge,” Benton says, noting that as majority leader, McConnell could, for instance, bring a border-security-only immigration bill to the floor.
Benton first became involved with Paul World in 2007. He had recently opened his own political firm, doing work for campaigns and outside groups, primarily in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Previously, he had worked for the American Conservative Union, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and David Vitter’s 2004 Senate campaign in Louisiana.
He met Kent Snyder, a longtime Ron Paul ally who became the campaign chairman of the 2008 bid. Snyder, who has since passed away, was working out of an office tucked behind a Korean deli — you had to walk behind the counter to get to the office – in Arlington, Va. Benton, attracted to Paul’s message on spending, civil liberties, and foreign policy, initially worked pro bono for the elder Paul, but soon became a paid consultant.
Benton met his wife, Valori, in 2007, when he had arranged for Valori and other Paul family members to talk to a Texas Monthly reporter as part of the campaign. The two married a year later, around when Benton became involved with Paul’s Campaign for Liberty, which was launched in 2008.
Starting in February 2009, Benton and Rand Paul began talking on a near-daily basis, thinking about Rand’s political future. Rumors were circulating that Kentucky GOP senator Jim Bunning would be retiring, and Paul and Benton were ready to seize the opportunity of an open Senate seat in Rand’s adopted state.
When Bunning made the news official, Paul and Benton got to work. In early 2010, Benton moved into Rand Paul’s home in Bowling Green, Ky., sleeping in the basement bedroom, and led the insurgent’s campaign to victory that fall.
Benton first met McConnell in 2010, at a party “unity” rally where McConnell appeared with Paul just days after he had beaten Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson in the primary.
McConnell had endorsed Grayson, but as the general campaign continued, Benton appreciated McConnell’s efforts to get Paul elected.
“I’m not sure we would have won without Mitch,” he says bluntly. “Matter of fact, I’m quite sure we wouldn’t have.” McConnell was instrumental in convincing GOP-primary voters who had supported Trey Grayson to vote for and support Paul in the general election. And he helped the Paul campaign on the fundraising side — Benton estimates McConnell was responsible for about $2 million in donations.
And McConnell also made sure Paul was treated well by outside Republican campaign groups, too. The minority leader “made it very clear both to the senatorial committee and to some of the outside groups that he was friendly with,” Benton recalls, that “when they were making tough budget decisions that Kentucky had to stay at the top of the heap.”
Benton had a couple of meetings with McConnell in 2012, discussing how Paul supporters and the Tea Party would get behind the party’s presidential nominee, and also got to know Josh Holmes, McConnell’s chief of staff, well.
And there may have been another factor at work: the possibility of gaining experience for Rand Paul’s all but certain 2016 bid for the presidency, something Benton acknowledges he has talked to the McConnell team about. When I ask whether McConnell’s camp would support Paul in a presidential bid, Benton chooses his words carefully.
“Once we win this campaign, there’s going to be a substantial portion of Team Mitch that’s going to fuse with Team Rand,” he remarks, “and I think it’s going to make a really dynamite team.” It just might be dynamite enough to make Rand Paul the 2016 Republican nominee.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.