The man who effectively ran Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign will play a similar role in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s upcoming re-election bid.
Former Paul political director and national chairman Jesse Benton has been hired as McConnell’s campaign manager for the 2014 election.
Benton previously managed the campaign of Kentucky’s other Republican senator, Rand Paul, and was Ron Paul’s 2008 communications director.
In a statement, McConnell said Benton “is literally the best in the business at building and organizing conservative grassroots movements.”
This is the latest sign that the Pauls’ libertarian and constitutional conservative supporters are starting to gain a foothold within the upper echelons of the Republican Party.
Benton himself has gone from campaigning for Paul the father to Paul the son, and has also served as a senior vice president for the Paul-inspired activist group Campaign for Liberty. Benton is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter Valori Pyeatt.
Working for McConnell makes Benton’s politics less of a family affair, but he argues it isn’t a massive departure. “Senator McConnell takes the ideas of conservatives and the tea party very, very seriously,” Benton told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Benton resigned his position at Campaign for Liberty Tuesday, saying, “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.”
Congressman Paul responded in a statement: “Jesse remains committed to building on the historic progress our movement has made, and I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
McConnell has seen firsthand the strength of the Paul machine. Like most Republican elected officials in his state, McConnell supported then Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the GOP senatorial primary over Rand Paul. The campaign grew contentious and McConnell appeared in a pro-Grayson television commercial.
“I rarely endorse in primaries,” McConnell said, “but these are critical times.”
During the primary, Paul and the Senate minority leader held just one meeting, a tense encounter at a Louisville airport hangar.
McConnell expressed concern that Paul appeared to be running against him and his Senate leadership position.
“As our meeting continued, Senator McConnell reiterated that he didn’t want to get involved in the primary,” Paul recounted in his post-campaign book. “I thought to myself, ‘Not get involved — I wonder what it would mean if he did get involved.'”
Paul managed to put together a broad coalition of economic and social conservatives at the ballot box, aided by financial support from his father’s army of libertarian donors, to easily defeat McConnell’s preferred candidate in the primary.
McConnell — who aspired to be Senate majority leader — quickly put aside any lingering ill will from the primary and staunchly supported Paul in the general election.
That’s when Benton says he took notice of McConnell as an ally to his liberty movement. “Without Senator McConnell’s help,” he said, “we may not have won that race.”
McConnell appeared in the Ron Paul tribute video at the Republican National Convention and co-sponsored the Texas congressman’s retirement dinner at the Library of Congress Tuesday.
“I’ve always put politicians into two categories,” McConnell said in the video. “They’re either here to make a point or they’re here to make a difference. Ron Paul is the only one I know who made a difference by making a point.”
McConnell voted for Rand Paul’s government-cutting alternative federal budget when it came up in the Senate. The Washington Post described their relationship as “something that first appeared to be detente and now might be thought of as mutual respect.”
Benton’s hiring is the latest chapter in that progression. The move is sure to irritate those who don’t like the Pauls’ brand of conservatism. When Gary Howard, another Paul campaign veteran, was hired by the Republican National Committee, critics blasted it as a capitulation to “the isolationist, anti-Israel, Ron Paul wing of the Republican Party or [those] who follow the old Robert Taft foreign policy which advocated against US intervention in World War II.”
Some Paul supporters will also be displeased. Benton was closely associated with the strategy of integrating the Paul movement into the Republican Party, and emerged as a lightning rod for those who thought the campaign was too restrained or comfortable with the GOP establishment.
Many of these disenchanted Paul supporters held Benton responsible for the campaign’s failure to be more aggressive with Mitt Romney, on issues ranging from the content of the television ads during the primaries to the number of Paul delegates from Maine seated at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
For his part, Benton maintains that he is still fighting the same fight. “We have an opportunity to hold the line on taxes and spending, to really reduce the regulatory burden,” he told the DC News Foundation. Under McConnell’s leadership, he said, Senate Republicans would fight to repeal President Barack Obama’s federal health care law.
While Benton’s past clients have been underdogs, the Senate GOP’s top dog is widely favored to win re-election. McConnell’s choice of campaign manager suggests he isn’t prepared to write off any wing of the party as he pursues another term.
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