WASHINGTON -- They began as sworn enemies and later made peace as allies of convenience. Now Kentucky's two Republican senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, have developed a working relationship that serves their mutual interests (at the moment), but which is threatening to tear the GOP apart in the U.S. Senate.
The symbol and operational center of their relationship is an unassuming but effective political operative who now lives in Louisville, Ky. Jesse Benton, a veteran of grassroots organizing and Washington consulting, straddles the Republicans' Tea Party vs. Establishment fault line -- a line that seems increasingly to be shifting in the tea party direction.
Benton's resume tells the story. He was spokesman for Rep. Ron Paul's presidential campaign in 2008, was campaign manager in Kentucky for son Rand Paul's winning Senate campaign in 2010, returned to run the father's presidential campaign in 2012, and now serves as campaign manager for McConnell's 2014 bid for a sixth term.
And there is more to come. While working for McConnell, Benton keeps an eye on the larval stages of Rand Paul's bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. Paul has made scouting trips to Iowa and New Hampshire and fundraising forays around the country.
The objective of the Benton nexus is as clear as the water in a bluegrass stream: to use the Paul family's tea party ties to ensure that McConnell faces no significant primary opposition in Kentucky (opposition of the kind that Rand Paul himself provided McConnell's handpicked Senate candidate in 2010). In exchange for which, Senate Minority Leader McConnell will guard Paul's flank in Washington and bless him -- if not outright endorse him -- for 2016.
"There is no quid pro quo," Benton told me in an interview in Louisville earlier this month. "But the hope is that Mitch, having worked with Rand and seen him at close range, will tell the establishment guys that Rand is a good guy and a guy they can work with."
Ironically, the deepening Kentucky ties are causing friction elsewhere -- in the Senate.
For example, McConnell, as a floor leader, five-term senator and certified member of the party establishment, might be expected to side with the traditionalists against a tea party effort to dictate how senators can negotiate with their House counterparts over a new budget. GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine) see it as a harsh and unprecedented move.
But McConnell is siding with a tough-talking rejectionist front of tea party activists that includes not only Paul but Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah).
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart blamed Democrats for his boss's stance, arguing that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is using a procedural maneuver that would diminish Republicans' power to stop the budget in a final floor vote.
The specifics of McConnell's position on this arcane matter are less important than the identity of the man he is teaming up with: Paul.
As of now, McConnell has no serious GOP opposition at home. And if he and Rand Paul have anything to say, it'll stay that way.