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.