Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced today that Jesse Benton, the grassroots political operative who ran Ron Paul‘s presidential campaign, is leaving Paul World at the end of this year to run McConnell’s 2014 re-election campaign. The hire is already being heralded as a shrewd move by McConnell, who appears to have seen the writing on the wall after Paul’s son, Rand Paul, rode the Tea Party wave to defeat the McConnell-backed Establishment candidate in Kentucky’s 2010 Senate primary.
Benton, who ran Sen. Paul’s 2010 campaign and is married to one of Ron Paul’s granddaughters, is the consummate Paul insider, with deep ties to Kentucky’s Tea Party movement. His presence on McConnell’s staff virtually guarantees that the Senate Minority leader won’t face a challenge from the right in 2014 — or a challenge to his leadership in the Senate should the Tea Party’s influence there continue to grow.
But Benton is also a controversial figure in the Paul Universe, where the management of the Paul campaign is a topic of endless debate. His decision to take a job deep within the heart of the GOP is likely to raise the ire of some of Paul’s most active supporters, confirming long-held suspicions that the Texas Congressman’s campaign aides sold him out to the Republican Party Establishment.
But Benton doesn’t see it that why. In his first interview since taking the job with McConnell, Benton told Business Insider why he decided to take the job with McConnell, and why he doesn’t think he’s selling out all.
Below is the lightly-edited transcript of our interview:
BI: Senator McConnell isn’t up for re-election for another two years, and he doesn’t even have a Democratic opponent yet. Why take this position now? Do you anticipate a primary challenge?
Jesse Benton: No, we’re not anticipating a primary challenge. But we expect him to be the biggest target for the national Democrats. It’s sort of become a right of passage that the Senate leadership becomes a huge target. We saw it with [former South Dakota Sen.] Tom Daschle, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, and so on and so forth. We think that Sen. McConnell is going to have a big target on his back, but we’re going to be ready. We’re going to run a heckuva campaign.
BI: You ran Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign in Kentucky in 2010, and Sen. McConnell endorsed his primary opponent. What’s changed since then?
Benton: What changed was a friendship that we cultivated, both Rand and Senator McConnell and our teams cultivated in the  general election.
I’ll tell you a story about that: It was right after Rand’s primary win, and the buzzards were circling. The national Democrats were really cranking up their attack machine, the MSNBCs of the world were really circling, and we were facing a real tough general election. Sen. McConnell held a Unity Rally and he made it very clear that any partisan bickering from the primary was going to be left in the past. He really, really helped us mend and soothe hurt feelings from the primary. He just absolutely was a champion for us.
Rand has really cultivated a great friendship with him up on the hill, and I’ve cultivated a friendship with him and with some of his staff. I’ve really gotten to see how the man ticks. I’ve really grown to have quite a bit of admiration for him. So when they asked me if I was interested, it was unexpected, but it was very welcome.
BI: You told me a few months ago that you are both an operative and an activist. How does the Ron Paul activist side of you reconcile working for someone who has supported a lot of legislation that the Liberty Movement has opposed?
Benton: I look at Sen. McConnell as someone who fills a very different role than some of the other people that I have worked for. Sen. McConnell has to build consensus and bring people together. Sen. McConnell has a very, very difficult job up in Washington. If he’s the Leader, he’s going to have to pass a budget next year and he’s going to have to bring together Rand Paul on one side, and Susan on the other. That’s a tremendously difficult job and it requires a tremendous amount of statesmanship and leadership. Sen. McConnell is the kind of person who can bring people together, even when they disagree on some issues, find common ground and work for real solutions.
BI: What if he passes a budget that doesn’t balance the budget or reduce the deficit?
Benton: That’s really a question for his legislative staff. But I can tell you he’s committed to fiscal responsibility. He’s going to pass the most conservative budget that he can. Ultimately, a lot of it depends on the other United States senators, but he’s going to pass the most conservative, taxpayer-friendly budget that he can. That’s the role he plays — he can’t deal in absolutes.
BI: Is he going to support auditing the Federal Reserve?
Benton: Good question. I don’t know. I know that he’ll listen. He’s a leader, he places a lot of importance on the Tea Party and the Liberty Movement and he’ll allow for debate and discussion.*
BI: So if you had the chance to address the Ron Paul Universe, how would you address any criticism that you have sold out Ron Paul to take a position with the GOP Establishment?
Benton: First of all, I absolutely love all of Dr. Paul’s supporters. I admire every single one of them for the different things that they bring to the table.
My position is a bit different — I believe that everyone should pursue their passions, and be where they can best make a difference. Where I believe I can make a difference is to help bring the voice of the Liberty Movement and the voice of the Tea Party into a governing coalition. Some people want to work outside of the system, some people want to be 100% rigid — I view what I want to do is try to work with people who want to take our ideas seriously. I want to try to get as many of our ideas as I can included in the solution.
*Soon after our conversation, Benton got back to me and said he had found a letter McConnell sent to Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke last year calling for transparency at the central bank, and saying that he would vote yes on a bill to audit the Fed if Reid brought it to the floor. That’s a shift in position from 2010, when McConnell drew conservative ire for voting against an audit the fed amendment, just days before then-candidate Rand Paul won the Kentucky Republican Senate primary.
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