FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - To cover his political flank, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has forged an alliance with tea party darling Rand Paul, picked up support from other national tea party leaders and brought in a campaign manager from the upper echelons of the tea party movement.
The GOP's fiscally conservative wing has proven particularly powerful in Kentucky, and elsewhere it has felled incumbents including McConnell's longtime Republican colleague U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana. But McConnell's efforts to make inroads with the tea party movement have clearly paid off, virtually ensuring that no would-be challenger can get the kind of infusion of cash from tea party channels that allowed Paul to win here in 2010.
Paul, who has presidential aspirations and is looking to run in 2016, needs McConnell's connections to the wealthy donor base of the Republican establishment. Meanwhile, McConnell needs Paul's tea party influence to keep potential primary challengers at bay and to energize his general election campaign against the likely Democratic nominee, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
While the alliance with the family that includes former Texas Rep. Ron Paul may not be enough to ward off a challenger in next year's Republican primary, observers say McConnell has little to fear in securing the nomination.
McConnell's new allegiances go deep into the Paul family. Jesse Benton, who married the older Paul's granddaughter, signed on last year to lead McConnell's re-election campaign. Benton has previously served as campaign manager and political adviser to both Pauls, and his affiliation with McConnell sends a not-so-subtle signal to would-be tea party challengers to stand down and to potential donors to support McConnell or keep their wallets in their pockets.
"Mitch McConnell is an important ally and a conservative voice in Washington for the people of Kentucky," the younger Paul said in a statement to The Associated Press. "The commonwealth is stronger because of his service and I look forward to continuing to work with him."
The McConnell alliance also is a boon for Paul in other ways, such as providing leverage to push his political agenda. McConnell has even signed on to one of Paul's and the tea party's top political priorities, legalizing industrial hemp farming.
McConnell, a skilled political tactician, watched Paul rise from relative obscurity as a Bowling Green eye surgeon to be elected U.S. senator. Paul knocked off McConnell's own hand-picked candidate in the GOP primary and then went on to defeat a strong Democrat in the general election.
McConnell, who had been reluctant even to meet with Paul during the primary, reached out after his primary victory, helping him to raise money from the GOP establishment and offering general election counsel in a state where no one knows the political landscape better.
That won McConnell not only Paul's favor, but his early endorsement for re-election. TheTeaParty.net also endorsed McConnell. The group's founder, Todd Cefaratti, called McConnell "an indispensable ally of conservatives in the Senate."
The group's chief strategist, Niger Innis, said tea party activists in Kentucky largely "seem to be circling the wagons around Sen. McConnell."
Still, one of Kentucky's most outspoken tea party activists, David Adams of Nicholasville, has been bent on fielding a serious tea party challenger to McConnell. So far, he has no takers, though Louisville resident Matthew Bevin continues to toy with the idea. Bevin, who has offered no timetable for making a decision, has kept a low profile, declining interview requests. He has attended several GOP meetings, including a dinner last month where he sat three tables away from McConnell.
A millionaire businessman and investor, Bevin has no choice but to weigh the symbiotic relationship that has developed between Paul and McConnell.
Louisville attorney Mike Karem, a Republican activist who worked for the Nixon and Reagan administrations, said the relationship between Paul and McConnell has essentially cleared the path for McConnell to the GOP nomination. "They worked out a backroom deal," Karem said. "Nobody can say McConnell is dumb."
University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss agreed McConnell has "shored up his right flank" and really has nothing to fear from potential GOP challengers.
"Upsets are never impossible, which is why incumbents always run scared," Voss said. "But it's hard to believe that Mitch McConnell is going to see a serious threat in the primary."
Voss said McConnell has been delivering "olive branches" to tea party activists as a vocal opponent of federal health care reforms and other Obama administration policies and initiatives. He also won favor with conservatives back home by filing legislation earlier this year to force the federal government to speed up the process for approving permits for new coal mining operations.
Kentucky has lost more than 4,000 mining jobs since 2011, largely due to market factors. But in the Kentucky coalfields, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking blame for "regulatory overreach" that political leaders insist is making it difficult for coal operators to open or expand mines, thereby costing jobs. McConnell toured the coalfields when he filed the legislation and was heralded a champion for Kentucky miners.
Adams, who served as Paul's campaign manager through the 2010 primary but has since fallen into disfavor with him, doesn't dispute that McConnell has appeal within the tea party movement, including some "who would lay their heads on a train track for him." Adams isn't one of those. He insists McConnell is vulnerable to a strong Democratic challenger and should be pushed aside for a tea party nominee in the primary.
Voss said he doesn't expect that to happen.
"There's no clear stalking horse to come after him in the primary," Voss said.
What is clear is that McConnell has a strong Democratic challenger to face in next year's general election. Grimes announced recently that she will take on the Republican stalwart who already has raised some $13 million for his re-election campaign. When Grimes stepped up, several other potential Democratic candidates stepped aside, including former Miss America Heather French Henry of Louisville, the wife of former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry.
Defeating McConnell would be the Democrats' biggest prize of the 2014 election. His seat is one of 14 that Republicans are defending, while Democrats try to hold onto 21.
McConnell, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1984, has never lost an election. He spent more than $20 million in 2008 to beat Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, a wealthy Louisville businessman, by 6 percentage points.
Most think McConnell could spend as much as $30 million on the upcoming next race. Republican super PACs could spend an additional $30 million, making the race Kentucky's most expensive ever.
McConnell told GOP supporters in Kentucky that he's bent on winning re-election with hopes that voters will elect enough additional Republicans to the Senate to allow him to move up to majority leader.
"You know, I've had a lot of experience as defensive coordinator," he said. "I want to get a chance to call the plays."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)