By Alexander Bolton - 03/29/12 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite, signaled this week that he supports Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2014 reelection effort.
Some GOP strategists had assumed the freshman Republican senator would stay neutral after McConnell (R-Ky.) campaigned for Paul’s 2010 primary opponent, former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
Since then, McConnell has attempted to improve his relationship with Paul, which had been rocky at times. McConnell has also taken other steps to protect his right flank for the next election cycle.
“Sen. Paul and Leader McConnell have forged a strong relationship and created a number of pieces of legislation on behalf of their shared constituents. It’s clear the commonwealth is best served with their combined efforts now and in the future,” said Moira Bagley, Paul’s communications director.
While the statement stops short of an official endorsement, such an announcement could be made over the next two years.
Paul’s role in McConnell’s bid for a sixth term is a delicate issue for both Kentucky legislators. Paul was elected to the Senate as an outsider, and has not been shy in bashing the Washington establishment. A move to formally endorse McConnell could attract criticism from some Tea Party activists.
McConnell, meanwhile, has his eyes on becoming majority leader in 2013 or 2015 and knows he has a big target on his back. Any conflict, perceived or otherwise, between himself and Paul could hamper his reelection in a potential primary. Democrats targeted McConnell in 2008 and are sure to try again in 2014, when there are only 13 Republican senators in cycle.
McConnell rarely endorses in primaries, but stepped in on behalf of Grayson, cutting a television ad touting the candidate’s “conservative leadership.” The move backfired when Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, endorsed Paul. The son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) subsequently stunned Grayson. McConnell backed Paul in the general election.
McConnell has said he is definitely running for reelection, while no other candidates have announced their intentions.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), like Paul a member of the Tea Party Caucus, has stayed neutral in this year’s Utah Republican primary involving Sen. Orrin Hatch. Lee has not raised any money for Hatch. Two years ago, Hatch backed then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) over Lee.
Earlier this week, Paul said he was not aware of a potential challenger to McConnell.
“We’re not making any comments on any primaries at this point, but I’ve been working with Sen. McConnell on many different issues. We have a lot of things we work together on,” Paul told The Hill on Tuesday while walking back to the Capitol from a rally protesting the 2010 healthcare reform law.
Later in the day, Bagley contacted The Hill to send the office’s additional statement on the matter.
A source close to McConnell said the leader has not asked Paul for his endorsement.
McConnell has taken steps to protect himself from a GOP primary challenge in 2014. He has filled his campaign coffers with millions of dollars to scare off would-be rivals.
In recent months, McConnell has voted against bipartisan legislation that could have given ammunition to Tea Party critics. His reelection fund reported $4.25 million in cash on hand, and his fundraising team plans to enter the 2014 election cycle with a war chest twice the size of what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had at the start of the 2010 cycle.
McConnell surprised some colleagues earlier this month by voting against the bipartisan transportation authorization bill that passed with 74 votes. Members of the Tea Party Caucus including DeMint, Paul and Lee also voted no.
In December, McConnell opposed a $1 trillion omnibus spending bill, despite his position as the second-ranking Republican member of the Appropriations Committee.
Al Cross, a political columnist and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said McConnell’s groundwork makes it unlikely he will face a serious conservative threat in the 2014 primary.
“McConnell has been attending to his knitting pretty well on the home front. If he and Paul were actively at odds, then Paul might give a green light to people who are interested in doing that,” Cross said in reference to a possible primary challenge.
“I think McConnell is very careful to cultivate a working relationship with Paul despite their considerable disagreements on various issues. They’re still singing from the same book,” he said.
But Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said McConnell still faces a threat.
“It’s clear that conservative activists in Kentucky with the ideological orientation of the Tea Party are unhappy with what McConnell represents, such as the more compromising approach to things like deficit reduction and extending the debt ceiling. The second bit is the extent he has built his reputation in the state by bringing home the bacon. To more ideologically pure members of the Tea Party, that represents a problem.”
Paul gave voice to Tea Party sentiments during his maiden speech on the Senate floor, when he harshly criticized former Sen. Henry Clay (Ky.), one of McConnell’s heroes.
Paul questioned Clay’s role as the “Great Compromiser” of 19th-century American politics and suggested a parallel between Republican leaders compromising on federal spending today and deals that extended slavery 160 years ago.
McConnell abruptly walked off the floor in the middle of the speech, a break in Senate tradition. An aide to McConnell said at the time that the leader had to attend a previously scheduled meeting and noted his boss issued a press release praising the speech.
The relationship hit another rough patch months later when McConnell passed over Paul to pick a more junior colleague to serve on the Senate Budget Committee, a post Paul wanted. The leader tapped Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), the only member of the Republican Conference who had less seniority at the time.
Tension over those moments seems to have faded, however. McConnell attended the first fundraiser Paul held for his political action committee. And the two have teamed up on legislation, such as a bill to protect Kentucky coal miners from Environmental Protection Agency regulation.
Bagley said McConnell has been one of Paul’s biggest supporters since the 2010 primary.
Trygve Olson, who was a field consultant for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Kentucky, remembered McConnell clearing out his schedule one day in the fall to campaign with Paul.
After seeing a crowd of new faces at a morning campaign event for Paul, McConnell “decided to stay for the entire day and ended up at a Tea Party rally,” Olson recalled.
This story was updated at 1:48 p.m.