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.