Local/Regional News
7:25 am
Thu September 13, 2012

McConnell Hires Tea Party Strategist

FRANKFORT, Ky.  -- Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell reached into the upper echelons of the tea party movement for a campaign manager to head his bid for re-election to a sixth term.

McConnell announced Thursday that he hired Jesse Benton - the tea party political operative who headed Texas Congressman Ron Paul's presidential primary race - to oversee a campaign that's still two years away and still lacking an opponent.

"We're committed to running a presidential-level campaign in Kentucky, and that starts with a presidential campaign manager," McConnell said in a statement. "Jesse is literally the best in the business at building and organizing conservative grassroots movements, and I'm thrilled he's chosen to return to Kentucky to lead my campaign."

Benton also headed the 2010 race of Paul's son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. The Bowling Green eye surgeon rose from relative obscurity to win Kentucky's other Senate seat over major candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

McConnell had said he was looking for a campaign manager with experience running and winning races in Kentucky and who had a reputation for unifying people. His choice of Benton drew immediate accolades.

"This was a brilliant hire by Sen. McConnell," said Mike Duncan, a Kentucky banker and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Jesse Benton is a guy who unifies conservatives across the political spectrum to fight for common goals, which is precisely what Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul have been working together to do."

A keen political strategist, McConnell sparked a GOP revival in Kentucky nearly three decades ago, helping to defeat Democrats in the state's federal delegation that, at the time, was sparse on Republicans. The GOP now holds both of Kentucky's U.S. Senate seats and four of the six U.S. House seats.

McConnell expects to be targeted by Democrats, though no challenger has stepped forward yet. Neither has a tea party Republican hinted at mounting a primary challenge. The hiring of Benton sends a clear signal to any potential tea party opponents to stand down.

Rand Paul said McConnell has earned tea party support, especially by leading opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare reform law that most Republicans have bitterly opposed.

"That's been one of the key planks and one of the things that the tea party has been most riled up about, Obamacare," Rand Paul said. "I think there are a lot of things the tea party, if they don't already know about, will learn that will draw them toward Sen. McConnell."

McConnell had socked away more than $6 million for his re-election campaign by the end of June. That early start in fundraising sends a not-so-subtle message to potential Democratic challengers that taking on McConnell would be expensive. He spent $20 million on his last election and won by 6 percentage points to become the longest-serving U.S. senator in Kentucky history.

Former Democratic state Auditor Crit Luallen, who had been touted as a potential challenger to McConnell, said last month she won't take him on. And Louisville businessman Phil Moffett, a tea party activist who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last year, ruled himself out as a primary challenger.

Mica Sims, a Lexington tea party activist and field representative for Rand Paul, said McConnell's choice of Benton shows that the conservative political movement is alive and well.

"We haven't gone away," she said. "Mitch McConnell has seen the writing on the wall, and he knows that he wants and is trying to garner that very enthusiastic grassroots base."