Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell has been called “one of the preeminent political survivors of our time” by the Washington Post. Yesterday, he demonstrated the truth of that accolade by hiring Jesse Benton, the top manger for both Ron Paul and his son, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, to run McConnell’s reelection campaign in 2014.
The Senate minority leader is now perfectly positioned to ward off a divisive primary challenge from a tea-party candidate in 2014. He would then be able to husband his resources — he already has a $6 million campaign war chest — in case Democrats are able to convince a marquee candidate such as Kentucky governor Steve Beshear to run. McConnell won with only 53 percent of the vote in 2008, and he knows Democrats are spoiling for revenge against him after he helped try to defeat Senate majority leader Harry Reid in 2010.
Tea-party candidates have recently upended Kentucky ’s once staid, establishment-run GOP primaries. In 2010, Rand Paul shocked the political world by defeating Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state, who had McConnell’s backing. In 2011, state senate president David Williams beat off an underfunded tea-party challenger by only ten points in the GOP primary for governor. That divisive race clearly contributed to Willaims’s defeat by a landslide in the fall election against Beshear.
McConnell moved quickly to shore up tea-party support. He has allowed Rand Paul to chart an independent course as a U.S. senator, and at last month’s Republican convention in Tampa, he appeared in a video tribute to Rand ’s father, three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul. That outreach paid off. When it came time for McConnell to make an overture to hire Jesse Benton, the seasoned campaign manager for Paul World, the move was endorsed by Rand Paul.
Benton is a good choice in other respects. “McConnell is doing what he’s always done — hire the best guy for the job,” says Trey Grayson, the man who lost to Rand Paul and now runs the Institute for Politics at Harvard University. “On so many levels, this is a brilliant move. McConnell has learned the lessons from 2010 and 2012 about incumbents not being prepared or not solidifying the party. 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.”
Now that McConnell has helped secure his right flank for reelection you can expect him to devote even more effort to electing enough Republicans this fall for him to become majority leader. He told National Review during a meeting at the Tampa convention that he hoped to pursue an aggressive policy agenda next year “but it’s a lot easier to do that when you have the votes for a majority then when you don’t.”