Politics & Government

Rand Paul, Mitch McConnell forge a friendship

Rand Paul, left, appeared with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at the 130th Fancy Farm Picnic in Western Kentucky last month.
Rand Paul, left, appeared with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at the 130th Fancy Farm Picnic in Western Kentucky last month.

WASHINGTON — It was the last few grueling weeks of Kentucky's U.S. Senate race, and Rand Paul, a Bowling Green doctor catapulted into the national spotlight by the Tea Party movement, prepared to emerge from the campaign bus with Sen. Mitch McConnell.

The stop was scheduled as a short one: a quick speech, sound bites for the press and a photo op. Then McConnell, the Senate minority leader, would move on to other pressing matters.

It didn't work out that way.

McConnell looked around at the gathering and realized he didn't recognize many of the excited faces — a rarity for a lawmaker known in Kentucky political circles as a kingmaker. He peered closer. These Tea Party patriots, as they called themselves, flocked to Paul like tweens to a Justin Bieber concert.

McConnell, a shrewd tactician, made a quick decision: He stayed with Paul for the rest of the day.

In the beginning, the political duet between McConnell, a stalwart symbol of the Washington establishment, and Paul, the Tea Party-backed maverick, was about as gawky as a middle school dance. But in the six months since Paul went to Washington, he and McConnell have developed a somewhat friendly and mutually beneficial relationship.

In many ways, their growing bond is symbolic of the awkward liaison that the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement have struggled to perfect during the past year in the wake of the latter's broad gains in the House and increasingly vocal following.

"I think most people realize the advantage of the Tea Party," Paul said. "They don't want the Tea Party to be a third party."

Months after McConnell's joint appearance with Paul, McConnell, sitting in his leadership office on Capitol Hill, would muse that those people, Paul's people, are genuinely worried that Washington bureaucrats are ruining the country.

"That's what caused people to take to the streets in a highly organic and decentralized climate," McConnell said. "It was out of that that Rand Paul flourished. He was a hero."

Trygve Olson, a GOP political consultant, said McConnell and Paul's relationship evolved because of the elder man's intelligence about the art and science of politics.

"Rand is smart and wants to soak up as much of McConnell's knowledge," said Olson, who was the National Republican Senatorial Committee's field consultant to the Kentucky race. "And McConnell wanted to soak up what Rand Paul tapped into that is a core element of the party and a whole group of people that had not been traditionally politically active."

When Tea Party protesters took to Capitol Hill earlier this year, McConnell took to the Senate floor and defended their right to be heard. When Paul released a plan earlier this year to cut the federal budget and reduce debt during the next five years, McConnell readily defended his junior colleague and was one of only a handful of lawmakers to vote for the measure.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington earlier this year, McConnell reportedly praised Paul, calling him "one of the great freshman conservatives" and said the newly elected senator was "already taking strong, principled stands in the Senate."

In turn, Paul introduced McConnell as the keynote speaker at the Lincoln Day dinner in Louisville.

Once critical of Washington leadership, Paul says he has come to understand that governance requires people like McConnell, who within his own party is "someone in leadership who tries to get consensus," and someone like "myself, more of an agitator."

Paul's political mentor is his father, libertarian standard-bearer Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas, but the younger Paul's recent showdown over the rights of gun owners and extending the Patriot Act was a page right out of McConnell's tactical playbook, Olson said. Paul's move, although ultimately unsuccessful, was a direct result of watching McConnell operate.

McConnell smiled wryly at the mention of Paul's forced vote on an amendment that would prevent federal officials from looking at gun dealers' records when searching for terrorists. He said Paul was "courageous" as he weathered the subsequent backlash.

"When I had been here in as short a time as he had, I hadn't offered an amendment," McConnell said. "I don't think I would have had the courage to do that in my first six months."

Like McConnell, other Republican leaders and candidates for re-election who need to deal with the Tea Party realized quickly that they should handle the grass roots group carefully, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report.

The thinking is, "'Where I can be helpful and supportive of you I will be, which will provide me some cover when I can't,'" Duffy said. "Republicans decided early on that they are not going to alienate these people. You'd rather them pissing in the tent than outside the tent."

The two lawmakers have worked together on several pieces of legislation, including a measure designed to force the Environmental Protection Agency to decide more quickly whether to approve or deny permits that mines need to operate under the Clean Water Act. They also have a bill that would empower the Department of Energy to re-enrich 40,000 cylinders of depleted uranium at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, sell it and then use the money to help with environmental cleanup.

As the men gingerly build a cordial working relationship, they are aided, in part, by the friendship between McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and Paul's wife, Kelley. The two women bonded over their shared experience as women married to men in the glare of the national spotlight.

"I know that Rand felt really grateful that Elaine was giving me some support last summer," Kelley Paul said of Chao's friendly overtures as her husband weathered criticism over controversial comments about the civil rights movement.

"It also helped us forge a relationship with McConnell, since we didn't have one in the primary," she said. "It helped us understand that they were working really hard for us."

Chao also has helped Kelley Paul meet people in tony Washington circles, offering advice on which parties to attend, how to get Senate staff schedulers to fit in family time, and growing a thick skin when dealing with the press.

She recently persuaded Kelley Paul, and by extension Rand Paul and some of their relatives, to attend a White House picnic where McConnell also made the rounds.

"There are only two of us," Chao said. "It's comforting to have another person who understands some of the concerns of what it's like to be a Senate spouse."

In the meantime, McConnell and Paul's relationship remains a work in progress.

"We have a friendship," Paul said. "I'm not saying we go out and get beers or anything. But we're friends."