The two men couldn’t be more different on paper: One is a five-term septuagenarian, career politician and the embodiment of the Republican establishment; the other a 49-year-old tea party firebrand who never before held elected office and the de facto leader of the libertarian movement.
But behind the scenes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and freshman Sen. Rand Paul are charting anything but divergent paths. They are methodically forming a tight-knit alliance to bridge the divide between the sparring factions of their party, an effort that could boost their own political careers in the process.
Sensing a tea party uprising back home after Paul defeated McConnell’s hand-picked candidate in the 2010 Senate primary, the calculating Republican leader focused on bringing Paul and his supporters under his wing. Two years later, it’s paying off: The two men barnstorm the state together in both official and political events; throw high-dollar fundraisers for one another; and are trying to merge the GOP’s tea party wing with the party’s establishment, social conservative and business wings — heading off an intraparty war that has uprooted Republican politics in many parts of the country.
The latest example came Thursday, when McConnell announced he had hired Jesse Benton — a top aide to both Paul’s Senate campaign in 2010 and Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign this year — to lead what could be the toughest reelection campaign of the Republican leader’s career in 2014.
The year-long search that ended with Benton’s hiring was a major signal to Republicans that McConnell views support from the younger libertarian and tea party movements as crucial not only to his political future, but also to his party’s prospects nationally.
“The last thing we want are tea party folks to feel like they’re not welcome in the Republican Party and then they’d have to form a third party that would hurt both of us,” Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said when asked about the alliance between Paul and McConnell. “I think it’s been a positive development.”