He helped Ron and Rand Paul tear down the Republican establishment. Then the ‘sellout’ went to work for Mitch McConnell. Meet the operative who just might bring the party back together.
When Jesse Benton moved to Kentucky, he didn’t think he would ever have to choose between them.
But in early 2013, Benton, the former aide to Rep. Ron Paul, Sen. Rand Paul, and now campaign manager to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was booed as he walked to the bathroom in a Louisville pizza place.
“I had been told I had to choose, so choose I did,” Benton said last week. “I have no ill will toward [the University of Kentucky], and pull for them against everybody but the [Louisville Cardinals].”
Being booed by Kentucky Wildcats fans for wearing a Cardinals T-shirt and navigating the Bluegrass State’s intense basketball rivalry, an area that got McConnell in hot water this week, was the easy part for Benton.
Being the “sellout traitor” (Google “jesse benton traitor”) who has moved from running insurgency campaigns and throwing bombs at the palace with the Paul family to guarding its gates on behalf of McConnell, Benton has learned that being in the middle of two warring factions can be hell.
At 36, Benton is one of few Republican operatives to have lived in both the Tea Party and establishment camps of a party that has repeatedly self-destructed over infighting and purity tests in recent years.
Despised by many on both sides of that divide, Benton might well be the future of the party—someone who knows both sides, is connected throughout, and, above all, wants to win.
“What Jesse is trying to do has never been tried by a political operative at such a high level: bringing together the two wings of the Republican Party,” said Scott Jennings, former deputy political director in President George W. Bush’s White House, a former top aide to McConnell and the man now advising the senator’s super PACs from his firm in Louisville.
“There’s no road map for how to pull this off, so that means sometimes you hit a few bumps in the road,” Jennings said. “But if he pulls it off—and I believe he will when McConnell is reelected this year—he will have created a template for the future of the GOP, where the establishment and the Tea Party find ways to work together to achieve policy and electoral victories.”
Wearing his uniform—cowboy boots, jeans, open-collared shirt, blue blazer, and pocket square—Benton rocked back and forth and gave it his all singing along in the cavernous Baptist church he and his wife, Valori, attend in Louisville. They’ve bought a house and joined a modest country club.
Valori is Ron Paul’s granddaughter. The two met at the second Republican presidential debate in 2007 in South Carolina, when Benton was working as the former congressman’s communications director and Valori was her granddad’s traveling assistant.
Over omelets at the Bentons’ club last Sunday after church, while their adorable 3-year-old daughter spread out her Disney toys on the table in front of her, Jesse Benton described how he and McConnell came to work together.
In the early part of 2010, the two men were adversaries as Benton worked to help Rand Paul shock the political world by upsetting Trey Grayson, McConnell’s hand-picked successor to retiring Sen. Jim Bunning.
On the Saturday after the primary, McConnell led a unity rally in Frankfort. Whatever skepticism Benton had toward the state’s senior senator dissipated that day, Benton said.
As protesters waved signs and shouted “Rand Paul racist,” Benton said, “Mitch held the line and made sure every single Republican of consequence was there for this unity rally and made very, very clear that everybody in the party was rallying behind their nominee.”
McConnell then fired up his fundraising machine for the upstart candidate, and the big donors who had backed Grayson and feared Paul started writing checks to Paul.
“That’s because Mitch knocked down that door for Rand,” Benton said. “I saw all this happen. It was really cool.”
Josh Holmes, who was McConnell’s chief of staff and now, at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), comprises the second head of McConnell’s campaign apparatus, said McConnell was impressed by Benton as he watched the young operative build a grassroots campaign that ended with a 12-point victory for Paul.
“McConnell is the single best political mind I’ve ever been around so he recognizes talent immediately,” Holmes said. “If you couple that with total dedication, he’s interested and the seeds of that with Jesse were planted in his mind.”
Holmes said he and McConnell watched as Benton led Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, scoring “underrated” political victories in early states. But it was Benton’s work to get some of the elder Paul’s ideas, like Federal Reserve oversight, into the Republican Party platform, that impressed McConnell the most.
“We were impressed by his ability to pull together divergent political factions and move them forward under one banner,” Holmes said. “In this case, he successfully implemented much of the Ron Paul agenda into the platform despite the fact that neither side felt like they won. He clearly demonstrated leadership qualities that could relate to McConnell world. That’s the moment McConnell began seriously considering him for the role.”
After he finished with Paul, Benton and McConnell began a long series of conversations, many in McConnell’s U.S. Capitol hideaway, getting to know each other and discussing the challenges that lied ahead as McConnell, approval numbers deeper underwater than the Titanic, plotted to win a sixth term.
“What had sort of not necessarily seemed like it made the most sense at the beginning, really started to make sense,” Benton said.
To Holmes and McConnell, Benton had proved himself on the right battlefields.
“We needed someone who had run a presidential campaign who wouldn’t flinch at red-hot scrutiny,” Holmes recalled. “We needed someone who had run and won a campaign in Kentucky. And we needed someone who could organize a cutting-edge ground-game that united all sides of the party. The number of operatives in that category is basically Jesse.”
When Benton signed on with McConnell, he wrote an op-ed in The Daily Caller explaining why.
It didn’t help.
To the far right, the same people who propelled Ron Paul to more success than anyone would’ve guessed in 2012, Benton is a traitor: He threw his candidate under the bus in a colluded effort to elect Mitt Romney, a phony conservative, and then went to work for McConnell, the most evil and well-known face of the establishment, earning chatroom disdain and death threats along the way.
Though pretty and quick to offer a sweet smile, Valori Benton is tough. She recently caught a would-be burglar in the garage of their new home and chased him out into the street.
But she grimaced at the mention of “death threats,” saying quietly that there have “been some tough times.”
Jesse Benton explained, lowering his voice in front of his family, that, for lack of a better term, he was “Ron’s asshole.”
Cont. reading here: TheDailyBeast.com