The Gentlemen from Kentucky: Inside the Partnership of Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell

The symbiotic relationship between Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul is a key to both senators' political futures.

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Republican Sen. Rand Paul, right, greets Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the beginning of the State Fair ham breakfast Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011, in Louisville, KY.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell was watching a basketball game on TV at around 10 p.m. on March 6 when he flipped the channel to C-Span for an update from the Senate floor. At 11:47 that morning, McConnell’s Kentucky compatriot, Republican Senator Rand Paul, had launched an old-school filibuster to protest Barack Obama‘s nomination of counterterrorism official John Brennan as CIA chief. The soliloquy exploded across cable news and ricocheted around the echo chamber of Twitter. But 10 hours of holding forth had taken its toll, and now Paul was flagging. So McConnell slipped on a suit and headed back to the Capitol, where he took a turn spelling his junior colleague and praising Paul for “his tenacity and for his conviction.”

By the time Paul finally ceded the floor after midnight, he had become the Republican Party’s man of the moment. Libertarians lit up message boards with praise, heralding his principled stand. GOP message mavens marveled at his ability to wring every drop of publicity out of the event. Pundits began mentioning Paul’s name as a top-tier presidential candidate. Ten days later he won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It took 13 hours of rhetoric on behalf of a doomed cause (Brennan was confirmed in a bipartisan vote hours later) to cement Paul’s transformation from Tea Party bomb-thrower to ascendant force within the party.

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When he burst onto the political scene three years ago, few people expected Paul to become a savvy practitioner of the inside game. But since entering the Senate, he has soaked up the ways of Washington, learning to leverage Senate procedure and to channel ideas into influence. Behind the scenes, one of the key figures in his heady climb has been McConnell, the master tactician who tried to kill Paul’s political career before it began. Their improbable partnership has become one of the most important within the Republican Party, providing Paul the seasoning and connections he needs to broaden his coalition and offering McConnell political cover with conservatives vying to oust him in a 2014 primary.

The partnership got off to a bruising start. Back in 2010, the two men were on opposite sides of the GOP primary to replace outgoing Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, whom McConnell had nudged into retirement. Paul was an unknown ophthalmologist from sleepy Bowling Green, lobbing bombs at his own party from under the Tea Party banner. His opponent was Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s sitting secretary of state. McConnell, like nearly every other member of Kentucky’s Republican establishment, endorsed Grayson. But local cachet proved no match for a Tea Party movement that had rumbled to life and adopted Paul as a national leader. He won going away.

By then McConnell had realized his mistake. “Mitch recognized early on, probably before the vast majority of people in this town, that Rand Paul had tapped into something,” says one senior Paul adviser. On the heels of the nasty primary, McConnell corralled Paul, Grayson, and every elected member of the Kentucky delegation for a “unity rally” at the state capitol in Frankfort. He dispatched key aides to provide guidance and beef up Paul’s campaign infrastructure during the rocky period that followed Paul’s disastrous interview with talk-show host Rachel Maddow. The two camps patched up their frayed ties. Meanwhile, Paul and McConnell began nurturing a relationship that has since paid off for both men.

On the surface, the two are an improbable pair: the libertarian political neophyte and the canny cloakroom operator. Paul, 50, earned his seat by railing against the apostasies of Washington stalwarts like McConnell, 71. “You’ve got one who obviously needs to keep the trains running on time, and the other whose identity in large part is to make sure the trains don’t run,” says a senior Republican Senate aide.

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But each offers the other important benefits. “I see two people who kind of need one another,” says Grayson, who is now the director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. For Paul, McConnell is a valuable sherpa, steeping him in the Senate’s peculiar rituals, helping him navigate a fractious caucus and teaching him to make his stands without alienating colleagues. With the chamber controlled by Democrats, Republicans are allowed a limited number of amendments on legislation. McConnell grants Paul his fair share or more, which in turn leads to earned media and exposure and the chance to score political points. For a political rookie with presidential ambitions, Paul’s ability to win McConnell’s imprimatur is a crucial step to convincing the GOP establishment that he is more than a wild-eyed radical. “Having the Republican leader, who openly fought you in your primary bid, now showing he can work with you is an important step,” says Grayson.

On the other side of the ledger, Paul’s support helps shore up McConnell’s credentials ahead of what could be a difficult re-election campaign in 2014. For all his swat in the Senate, McConnell is on shaky footing in his home state; one survey, taken in December by the liberal firm Public Policy Polling, put his approval rating at just 37%. His relationship with Kentucky Tea Party groups has been uneven. David Adams, the Kentucky strategist who managed Paul’s 2010 campaign, is working to recruit a conservative to challenge McConnell from the right in next year’s Senate primary, with attacks cribbed from Paul’s old playbook. “A lot of blood will pour out as we peel that scab off,” Adams says. Paul’s support for McConnell, and his willingness to explain to the Tea Party why McConnell’s leadership position requires him at times to stray from pure conservative doctrine, is a valuable asset to the five-term senator.

To Adams, the alliance between Paul and McConnell smacks of political opportunism. “Mitch’s approach to ingratiating himself toward Rand and the liberty movement goes beyond the usual amount of political brazenness,” he says. As for Paul, “he’s in a bit of a box in terms of the grassroots effort to throw Mitch out on his ear.”

Allies of both senators stress the mutual respect between the two men, and by all accounts their working relationship is thriving. McConnell is a “mentor” of sorts, says one senior Paul aide.  The two sit together at caucus lunches. Their staffs swap multiple emails a day. Their wives are friends. They have worked together on issues ranging from industrial hemp to national right-to-work legislation to the fate of a gaseous diffusion plant in Paducah, Kentucky.

(MORE: Rand Paul Steals Show From Marco Rubio at CPAC)

From a political perspective, it is also a classic symbiotic partnership in a town where all relationships are in some way transactional. “It’s a pragmatic relationship, and it’s also a personal relationship. The two are inseparable from each other,” says Jesse Benton, a strategist who worked for both Rand and Ron Paul before McConnell tapped him to manage his re-election campaign.

It was Benton who served as the conduit when Paul sought McConnell’s approval to launch his filibuster. About two weeks before taking the floor, he broached the subject with Benton — who is married to Paul’s niece — during dinner at Paul’s home in Bowling Green. Benton conveyed the idea. The two staffs stayed in communication, and McConnell gave the green light. His approval gave Paul “a lot of cover,” Benton says. “Rand made sure this wasn’t just coming out of left field, and that made it a lot easier for allies all over the Republican spectrum to ride in and support him.”

It was, in other words, the kind of savvy gambit few would have expected of a man whose father was famous for ignoring the inside game of politics. Suddenly Paul was no longer just a Tea Party sensation. The hashtag #standwithrand began trending on Twitter. Politico anointed him “one of the two most potent forces in GOP politics today.” As for McConnell, he capitalized on Paul’s newfound publicity in his own clever way. Within days, he was fundraising off his colleague’s filibuster, urging supporters to “stand with Rand and Mitch.”