By Kathleen Hunter
WASHINGTON — When Rand Paul held the Senate floor for a 13-hour filibuster last week, followers sent a Twitter appeal to "Stand with Rand." As the hashtag went viral, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared on the floor to applaud Paul for his "courage and conviction."
McConnell's cameo during Paul's performance underscored a mutually beneficial relationship that's developed between the two Kentucky Republicans — one a freshman senator, the other a five-termer — who were once political adversaries.
"What Rand was doing last week brought back a lot of memories of the early part of my career," McConnell, 71, said Tuesday, recalling a 1994 filibuster he led that derailed campaign finance legislation. Paul, 50, was blocking the nomination of John Brennan to serve as CIA director and protesting the administration drone policies he helped craft.
The lawmakers have been cultivating an alliance ever since Paul won a 2010 Senate Republican primary against McConnell's preferred candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
The relationship carries dividends for Paul, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, in that good relations with McConnell gives him more latitude to push his political agenda. For McConnell, who will be seeking re-election next year, Paul provides a bridge to the party's anti-tax tea partyy wing and reduces the odds that it will fuel a primary challenge to him. Paul is co-founder of the Senate tea party Caucus.
In the general election, actress Ashley Judd has said she is considering running for the seat as a Democrat.
Paul and McConnell "both respect the other's political instinct," said John David Dyche, a former political columnist for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. "They're both just such good politicians that they quickly realized that they did have a lot more in common and could help each other a lot more than any differences were worth to either of them."
They aren't natural allies, given their backgrounds.
McConnell is a soft-spoken, inside player who is known to use his extensive knowledge of Senate rules to achieve his aims. A Kentucky resident since he was 13, he's spent his professional life in politics. He worked as a Capitol Hill intern and aide before first winning his Senate seat in 1984. For many years, McConnell touted the federal monies he was able to direct back to Kentucky from his perch on the Appropriations Committee as a reason for re-election — a practice the tea party opposes as wasteful spending.
Paul hails from a political family known for challenging the establishment — his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, ran for president in 1988 as the Libertarian Party candidate, then pushed his limited-government agenda in seeking the White House as a Republican in 2008 and 2012.
The younger Paul moved to Kentucky after graduating from Durham, N.C.-based Duke University's medical school and spent 17 years as a practicing opthamologist. He began his career in state politics in the early 1990s when he founded an anti-tax group called Kentucky Taxpayers United.
Paul's alliance with McConnell gives him access to wealthy donors who are usually essential to mounting a national campaign. Paul's father was supported in his Republican presidential bids almost exclusively by small donors.
"Senator McConnell taps into a big money base that is not going to tend to gravitate toward Senator Paul because they're primarily made up of people who don't want government to be smaller," said David Adams, who managed Paul's campaign during the 2010 Senate primary.
Five days after he praised Paul's filibuster, McConnell emailed supporters urging them to donate to his Senate re- election campaign and to sign a petition declaring that they too "stand with Rand and Mitch."
McConnell is among a small group of Republicans who have twice endorsed Paul's budget plan, which would balance the budget in five years and eliminate four federal agencies, including the energy and education departments. He's also among two dozen Senate Republicans who've signed on to Paul's proposal to require an audit of the Federal Reserve — a measure the freshman's father repeatedly sought.
"We don't agree on every issue but we agree on a lot of issues," McConnell said.
Last August, McConnell and Paul both appeared at a tea-party-organized rally at the Kentucky state capitol in Frankfort to protest President Obama's health-care law. The next month, McConnell hired Paul's 2010 general election campaign manager — Jesse Benton — to head his re-election effort. Before accepting the position, Benton said in a telephone interview, he discussed the offer with Paul, who encouraged him to join McConnell's camp.
Paul said in an interview that he's attended fundraising dinners with McConnell in their state and that the Senate minority leader is "well received" by the party faithful.
"His message is one of the standard things that we all seem to agree on, which is that we want a smaller government and not taxing you and not over regulating you," he said.
Paul also said he "really appreciated" McConnell's show of support for his filibuster.
"By the time you've been out there nine, 10, 11 hours, you're starting to feel it, and all the senators coming forward, particularly Senator McConnell from the same state, was something that was very nice," he said.
Through March 11, 607,500 messages had been posted with the #standwithrand hashtag, according to Topsy, a social media analysis company.
McConnell and Paul began their partnership soon after the 2010 primary ended. McConnell helped organize a rally in Frankfort to unify the party and later sent his aides from Washington to work on Paul's general election campaign while also raising money for it.
"The relationship started off rather rocky, as you might imagine, but Mitch committed immediately — when he realized that the primary was over — committed to being helpful to Rand, and he was," Adams said.
Pragmatism is a hallmark of McConnell's political style, and he has a history of engaging in party affairs in Kentucky. He has interviewed candidates for local posts, raised funds for statewide office seekers, and in 1999 helped engineer a Republican takeover of the Kentucky state Senate when two Democrats — at McConnell's urging — switched their party affiliation to Republican.
McConnell said his support of Paul's filibuster stemmed from his interest in defending the Constitution. Paul cited due process protections guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment as the basis for his protest last week. After Paul had ended his filibuster, Attorney General Eric Holder assured him the government lacked authority to kill U.S. citizens with drones unless they present an imminent threat.
Brennan was confirmed for the CIA post by the Senate, though Paul and McConnell both voted against him.
Citing free-speech protections guaranteed under the First Amendment, McConnell has opposed campaign finance limits and in 2006 was one of three Republicans who voted against a proposed constitutional amendment giving Congress the power to ban desecration of the U.S. flag. The proposal fell one vote short of passing.
"No act of speech is so obnoxious that it merits tampering with our First Amendment," McConnell said at the time.
In his push for re-election next year, McConnell has raised at least $7.4 million as part of an effort to intimidate tea party groups threatening to recruit a primary challenger and Democrats who see ousting him as a symbolic victory akin to the 2004 Republican defeat of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
"The Democrats know that I am the biggest target in a 2014 cycle," McConnell said Tuesday. "So we assume they will throw everything they can at me."
He said he would be "very aggressive" in making his case to voters, and his campaign said yesterday it will begin running ads in Louisville and Lexington tomorrow.
"I have no sense of entitlement," he said. "I don't own this job. I have to earn it when I run for it."
If the local tea party groups recruit a primary challenger, Paul said he will stand by his Washington colleague. "I am supporting Senator McConnell," he said.