Kentucky Derby

03.28.14

Can ‘the Traitor’ Jesse Benton Unite the GOP?

He helped Ron and Rand Paul tear down the Republican establishment. Then the ‘sellout’ went to work for Mitch McConnell. Meet the operative who just might bring the party back together.

When Jesse Benton moved to Kentucky, he didn’t think he would ever have to choose between them.

But in early 2013, Benton, the former aide to Rep. Ron Paul, Sen. Rand Paul, and now campaign manager to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was booed as he walked to the bathroom in a Louisville pizza place.

“I had been told I had to choose, so choose I did,” Benton said last week. “I have no ill will toward [the University of Kentucky], and pull for them against everybody but the [Louisville Cardinals].”

Being booed by Kentucky Wildcats fans for wearing a Cardinals T-shirt and navigating the Bluegrass State’s intense basketball rivalry, an area that got McConnell in hot water this week, was the easy part for Benton.

Being the “sellout traitor” (Google “jesse benton traitor”) who has moved from running insurgency campaigns and throwing bombs at the palace with the Paul family to guarding its gates on behalf of McConnell, Benton has learned that being in the middle of two warring factions can be hell.

At 36, Benton is one of few Republican operatives to have lived in both the Tea Party and establishment camps of a party that has repeatedly self-destructed over infighting and purity tests in recent years.

Despised by many on both sides of that divide, Benton might well be the future of the party—someone who knows both sides, is connected throughout, and, above all, wants to win.

“What Jesse is trying to do has never been tried by a political operative at such a high level: bringing together the two wings of the Republican Party,” said Scott Jennings, former deputy political director in President George W. Bush’s White House, a former top aide to McConnell and the man now advising the senator’s super PACs from his firm in Louisville.

“There’s no roadmap for how to pull this off, so that means sometimes you hit a few bumps in the road,” Jennings said. “But if he pulls it off—and I believe he will when McConnell is reelected this year—he will have created a template for the future of the GOP, where the establishment and the Tea Party find ways to work together to achieve policy and electoral victories.”

***

Wearing his uniform—cowboy boots, jeans, open-collared shirt, blue blazer, and pocket square—Benton rocked back and forth and gave it his all singing along in the cavernous Baptist church he and his wife, Valori, attend in Louisville. They’ve bought a house and joined a modest country club.

Valori is Ron Paul’s granddaughter. The two met at the second Republican presidential debate in 2007 in South Carolina, when Benton was working as the former congressman’s communications director and Valori was her granddad’s traveling assistant.

Over omelets at the Bentons’ club last Sunday after church, while their adorable 3-year-old daughter spread out her Disney toys on the table in front of her, Jesse Benton described how he and McConnell came to work together.

In the early part of 2010, the two men were adversaries as Benton worked to help Rand Paul shock the political world by upsetting Trey Grayson, McConnell’s hand-picked successor to retiring Sen. Jim Bunning.

On the Saturday after the primary, McConnell led a unity rally in Frankfort. Whatever skepticism Benton had toward the state’s senior senator dissipated that day, Benton said.

As protesters waved signs and shouted “Rand Paul racist,” Benton said, “Mitch held the line and made sure every single Republican of consequence was there for this unity rally and made very, very clear that everybody in the party was rallying behind their nominee.”

McConnell then fired up his fundraising machine for the upstart candidate, and the big donors who had backed Grayson and feared Paul started writing checks to Paul.

“That’s because Mitch knocked down that door for Rand,” Benton said. “I saw all this happen. It was really cool.”

Josh Holmes, who was McConnell’s chief of staff and now, at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), comprises the second head of McConnell’s campaign apparatus, said McConnell was impressed by Benton as he watched the young operative build a grassroots campaign that ended with a 12-point victory for Paul.

“McConnell is the single best political mind I’ve ever been around so he recognizes talent immediately,” Holmes said. “If you couple that with total dedication, he’s interested and the seeds of that with Jesse were planted in his mind.”

Holmes said he and McConnell watched as Benton led Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, scoring “underrated” political victories in early states. But it was Benton’s work to get some of the elder Paul’s ideas, like Federal Reserve oversight, into the Republican Party platform, that impressed McConnell the most.

“We were impressed by his ability to pull together divergent political factions and move them forward under one banner,” Holmes said. “In this case, he successfully implemented much of the Ron Paul agenda into the platform despite the fact that neither side felt like they won. He clearly demonstrated leadership qualities that could relate to McConnell world. That’s the moment McConnell began seriously considering him for the role.”

After he finished with Paul, Benton and McConnell began a long series of conversations, many in McConnell’s U.S. Capitol hideaway, getting to know each other and discussing the challenges that lied ahead as McConnell, approval numbers deeper underwater than the Titanic, plotted to win a sixth term.

“What had sort of not necessarily seemed like it made the most sense at the beginning, really started to make sense,” Benton said.

To Holmes and McConnell, Benton had proved himself on the right battlefields.

“We needed someone who had run a presidential campaign who wouldn’t flinch at red-hot scrutiny,” Holmes recalled. “We needed someone who had run and won a campaign in Kentucky. And we needed someone who could organize a cutting-edge ground-game that united all sides of the party. The number of operatives in that category is basically Jesse.”

***

When Benton signed on with McConnell, he wrote an op-ed in The Daily Caller explaining why.

It didn’t help.

To the far right, the same people who propelled Ron Paul to more success than anyone would’ve guessed in 2012, Benton is a traitor: He threw his candidate under the bus in a colluded effort to elect Mitt Romney, a phony conservative, and then went to work for McConnell, the most evil and well-known face of the establishment, earning chatroom disdain and death threats along the way.

Though pretty and quick to offer a sweet smile, Valori Benton is tough. She recently caught a would-be burglar in the garage of their new home and chased him out into the street.

But she grimaced at the mention of “death threats,” saying quietly that there have “been some tough times.”

Jesse Benton explained, lowering his voice in front of his family, that, for lack of a better term, he was “Ron’s asshole.”

Benton and others believe they can reunite the Republican Party in Kentucky, paving the way for McConnell to become Senate Majority Leader and for Paul to launch a presidential campaign.

“Some of the people that were the most critical of me during the last three races were Ron’s own supporters. I mean they were pretty brutal toward me,” Benton said wistfully. “On orders from Ron, I would do the things and have to say the things that were unpopular with his hard-core supporters.

When asked for an example, Benton laughed.

“That Ron was not going to be the nominee of the Republican Party,” he said.

The disdain from the Tea Party was compounded by mistrust from the establishment—a man with no home trying to keep two islands together—after Benton was recorded saying on the phone that he was going to “hold my nose” and get through the McConnell campaign just to help Rand Paul position himself for 2016.

The incident nearly destroyed the relationship Benton and McConnell had built, giving Democrats endless fodder with which to attack the senator.

“It was horrible. It was horrible,” Benton said somberly. “When you really respect somebody, and there are a handful of people I’ve ever worked for or been around when I really respected them, where a quiet look in the eye and a quiet word and just them letting them know that they were disappointed in me was more crushing than any ass-chewing I could’ve have ever gotten. That’s how it was with Mitch.

“He just came in, he sat down in my office, he looked me in the eye and he goes ‘Jesse, I’m just disappointed. I don’t know how you could’ve said something like that.’ Man, that was tough. That was tough.”

Tough as it was, and will no doubt continue to be when Democrats start running ads further into the campaign, the operative’s nightmare scenario bonded the two men together.

“If there was ever any question about me being loyal to him 100 percent, it ended that moment,” Benton said.

Holmes, who has been with McConnell for more than seven years, said that “there isn’t a single person beyond Sen. McConnell himself who has more skin in the game here than Jesse.”

“By the time this all came out, everyone knew damn well he would lay down in traffic for Sen. McConnell, just as he would for Sen. Paul or Ron Paul,” Holmes said.

Benton acknowledges that it’s “definitely more stressful” to be at the forefront of McConnell’s slog to reelection and a possible Republican Senate Majority than it was to run Ron Paul’s long-shot campaign for the presidency.

“My fear of losing this race is tremendous,” Benton said. “It keeps us up at night, it keeps our stomachs churning. In the back of our minds, it’s like if we lose... it’s just unacceptable. Losing is unacceptable. We’re not going to even consider that as an option. And I’ve treated past campaigns like that even though other people [chuckles] didn’t necessarily share my way of thinking.”

***

Benton is, at heart, a political operative. He keeps a stack of “Team Mitch” door-hangers in the console of his Toyota Tundra pickup truck, and when he has a spare few minutes, Benton looks at the app on his iPhone that tells him which doors need literature.

He can do three doors in 15 minutes.

It’s that kind of doggedness that has won the respect of the Pauls and McConnell.

Conventional wisdom has long held that Benton’s role with McConnell is purely transactional. Like an NBA trade, McConnell got Benton to shore up Tea Party support in case there was a primary challenge, and in exchange, Rand Paul gets protection from and connections to the GOP establishment.

While the relationship between Paul and McConnell has at times been fraught with tension, both camps have largely come to believe that one cannot be successful without the other.

Nobody believes that more than Benton, but both efforts have been somewhat complicated by Matt Bevin, the Louisville businessman challenging McConnell in the May 20 Republican primary.

Rand Paul took a lot of the same heat Benton did when the junior senator endorsed McConnell’s reelection. It got hotter when Bevin got in the race.

Paul is visibly uncomfortable talking about Bevin, and McConnell’s leveling blows against his challenger make the situation even more awkward.

“It’s not great for Rand, and Bevin’s being a real jerk about it, too,” Benton said. “He wants to make it awkward, and I think that’s a shame.”

Bevin, along with state and national Democrats, delight in trying to drive a wedge between McConnell and Paul.

(”With respect to Matt’s relationship with Rand... ask Rand,” Bevin spokeswoman Rachel Semmel said. “This race isn’t about Jesse Benton. It’s about Mitch McConnell’s liberal record of caving to Obama.”)

But from outward appearances, the tension between Bevin and Paul has also sparked friction between Paul and Benton.

Kentucky reporters speculated that Paul and Benton were destined for an awkward Thanksgiving last November after Paul had to rein in his friend and ally when Benton said that Paul “misspoke” when the senator called Bevin “a good, honest, Christian man.”

People close to Paul say that the senator understands that Benton is doing what operatives do, but Paul does not like having words put in his mouth no matter who is putting them there.

In a statement for this story, Rand Paul said that “Jesse is a good friend and a key part of our successful campaign from the beginning. I enjoy working with him and value his advice, expertise, and sharp political instincts.”

Benton, who lived in Paul’s basement during the 2010 campaign, said he doesn’t worry about lasting tension between the two, even as the primary figures to get nasty.

“Rand and I have a strong bond—after all, we’re family, and he has always treated me that way,” Benton said. “If he could survive me living with him for a year and still like me, I don’t think a campaign will get in the way.”

The key to Paul’s success is expanding his base of support beyond the Tea Party while keeping that base intact. The harder Benton hits Bevin, the more that coalition is liable to turn on Paul.

Fortunately for Benton, McConnell, and Paul, Bevin’s candidacy has never really taken off and a full-fledged rebellion has yet to take shape—“There’s probably 2,000 activists in the whole state who are all ramped up,” Benton said.

“I am sure it’s not always easy, and Jesse has confided in me that it causes some occasional heartburn,” said Lexington, Ky. native Nate Morris, a friend of both Benton and Paul and a likely official with a Paul for President campaign. “But I know he thinks it is extremely important for the future of the party.”

Benton and others in both McConnell and Paul’s camps believe that on May 21, they can reunite the Republican Party in Kentucky, paving the way for McConnell to become the Senate Majority Leader and for Paul to launch a presidential campaign headquartered in Louisville if he decides to run.

On that day, Benton and the McConnell campaign will have to put on their hardhats and go to work to repair the party in the state so Republicans don’t stay home in November. Given that Benton and Team Mitch routinely refer to Bevin as a “con man,” that might not be an easy task.

When asked how difficult it will be to bring back Republicans who have turned against McConnell, especially after a scorched-Earth primary, Benton took a long pause.

“We’re going to be very magnanimous in our victory,” Benton said. “And we’re going to try to be as humble as we possibly can and welcome everybody back in.”

***

Driving through the outskirts of Louisville on a chilly, sunny Sunday afternoon, Benton was asked about the widely held assumption that after November, he will return to Randland to help Paul run for the Senate, the presidency, or both.

Benton said he and Paul have yet to have that conversation, but he added,”if we don’t win this one, it won’t matter.”

Benton explained later that he had two reasons for saying that: “One, if we can’t reelect Mitch McConnell, a statesman, true conservative, and legislator who leads, gets things done, and is a real treasure for our country, then our party is going to be in a lot of trouble for cycles to come.

“Part two, if I were to lose this race, the shine would be off my apple and no one would care what I do.”

Benton is no doubt right about part two, and he has a heavy lift as McConnell is locked in a reelection battle with 35-year-old likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.

But, as Jennings noted, if Benton “can pull it off,” he would likely be the most desired Republican staffer in the country as the parties turn their full attention from the midterms to the 2016 presidential race.

“Jesse—through Rand and Mitch—is perhaps blazing a trail for the future of the GOP, and the nattering nabobs would do the conservative cause a great service by just laying off and letting the man work,” Jennings said.

Benton disputes the idea that the Republican Party is in the middle of a civil war, but he acknowledges that someone like Rand Paul, who has some credibility with both camps, could potentially heal such a divide in 2016.

And of course Benton would likely be in the driver’s seat of such an effort.

“There is a definite need for operatives who have the ability and interest to unite conservatives,” Holmes said. “Jesse has that capability.  I don’t know whether it is a party chairman someday or volunteering at his kid’s school-board meeting, but he will always be working to improve his community and he’s willing to take the arrows to actually accomplish it.”

If McConnell were to lose in November, Benton’s stewardship of a campaign that has stumbled repeatedly from unforced errors would heavily into the post-mortem blame game.

But to the fragile coalition of Team Mitch, those standing with Rand and the guy at the nexus of the two worlds, defeat is an impossibility that cannot happen as they stand on the cusp of reuniting and rebuilding the Republican Party.

“I couldn’t even imagine trying to look [McConnell] in the eye and tell him we weren’t going to win,” Benton said. “I couldn’t. And that won’t happen.”