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Monday, September 17, 2012

Joseph Gerth: [Mitch] McConnell Moves To Avoid TEA Party Challenge.

Joseph Gerth | McConnell moves to avoid tea party challenge

The news last week that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has hired the grandson-in-law of tea party patriarch and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas, to lead his reelection effort is a sign that Kentucky’s senior senator will do anything he can to avoid a tea party challenge.

His naming of Jesse Benton as manager for his 2014 reelection campaign was being hailed by some as a stroke of political genius by some and criticized as craven politics by others.

It may be a little of both but it certainly gives McConnell an advantage heading into the 2013 when Republicans and Democrats would need to start lining up support if they are going to challenge the most powerful Senate Republican in Washington the following year.

McConnell already has a money advantage, having banked more than $6 million to defend his seat, far ahead of the fundraising pace he was on four years ago when he spent more than $21 million fighting off Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

Now, with Benton, he’s got a top-notch grass roots organizer with some serious tea party chops who can possibly help him scare off a serious tea party challenge.

By some in the tea party movement, McConnell is viewed suspiciously.

He based most of his career on bringing taxpayer money back to Kentucky, supported the stimulus package in late 2008 as the economy looked near collapse and backed an untold number of resolutions raising the debt ceiling.

Tea party, he’s not.

But with Benton on his side, that may not matter.

The problem with a tea party challenge, even if McConnell were to survive it, is that a poor showing in an intramural contest could make him look weak in the general election. Ask David Williams, who received less than 50 percent of the vote against two little-known opponents in the 2011 gubernatorial primary and was never able to gain any general election mojo.

Beyond that, a serious primary challenge would drain critical resources from him that he would need if he were fighting off a well-funded Democratic foe. Four years ago, he went more than $2 million in debt in order to win an election that seemed to be going south in the last month.

With Benton, McConnell gets someone who knows the state and whose presence seems to give him the Paul family’s imprimatur.

Benton, the Paul family fixer came to Kentucky in 2010 and helped straighten out the Senate campaign of his uncle, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who made some serious missteps in the days leading up to the GOP primary and in the days after it.

Now, he’s quit Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty, a grassroots political organization he helped found and was the group’s senior vice president, to fix whatever might ail McConnell’s reelection.

McConnell is obviously pleased with the hire.

The day the Associated Press story about Benton’s hire hit the newspapers and websites, McConnell’s staff members were doing their best to spread the news around.

His Senate office spokesman was circulating a Politico story about the relationship between McConnell and Paul that focused on his hiring of Benton and the need for him and other establishment Republican’s to get the tea party on board.

“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 was quoted as saying.

McConnell’s chief of staff was promoting a column Benton wrote for the conservative web publication, The Daily Caller, in which he explained why he was going to work for McConnell. And his Kentucky state director was pushing a Benton story on a downtown sidewalk at lunchtime Friday.

Later that day, McConnell sent out an email introducing Benton to his backers and praising him for his work. McConnell hasn’t been so effusive since he got weepy on the Senate floor when he sent off former chief of staff Kyle Simmons to become a lobbyist.

If Benton can keep him from a tea party challenge, that emotion could be well deserved.

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