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McConnell’s Bad Week Isn’t Fatal

There’s a lot of chortling going on right now among Democrats about Mitch McConnell, and who can blame them? The contretemps over the Senate minority leader’s campaign manager saying he will be “holding my nose” while working for McConnell is not only a public-relations gaffe. It’s a reminder that some conservatives and the libertarian wing of the GOP are decidedly unenthusiastic about supporting the senator’s reelection campaign. At a time when McConnell is already facing a pesky primary opponent purporting to represent the Tea Party and what may be a formidable challenge from the Democrats in the general election, this unforced error is the last thing McConnell needed this week.

There is no doubt that in a year when Democrats are defending a number of vulnerable seats leading even a liberal pundit like Nate Silver to give the GOP an even chance of taking back the Senate, McConnell appears to be the most endangered Republican up for re-election in 2014. But the bad news for Democrats who relish the thought of defeating their leading Washington nemesis is that it will take a lot more than a bad news week 15 months ahead of Election Day to knock off McConnell. Even more to the point, the “holding my nose” quote itself actually should remind us that the leading libertarian in the Senate has a vested interest in helping McConnell win that should overwhelm any reluctance on the part of his followers.

As embarrassing as it is, we didn’t need to learn about the comments of Jesse Benton that were actually uttered in January about his distaste for his boss to know that his presence in the McConnell campaign was the result of a strategic alliance between Rand Paul and the minority leader. As is well known, Benton performed the same function for Rand Paul in 2010 following a stint as press spokesman for Paul’s father Ron. He’s also married to one of Ron’s granddaughters. His hiring and Rand Paul’s endorsement of the minority leader’s reelection seemed to solidify an informal deal between Kentucky’s two Republican senators.

That this is an alliance based more on mutual needs than shared ideas is also true. McConnell saw a need to shore up his right flank against possible primary opponents while Paul rightly understood that having the minority leader as an ally rather than a potential enemy would bolster his presidential ambitions. This is an important point when considering how libertarians like the members of Paul’s extended clan look at 2014. Though McConnell’s primary opponent Matt Bevin will seek to exploit this to appeal to Rand’s supporters, the point to remember here is that while some of Paul’s supporters may be tempted to oppose him, the Paulbots have a vested interest in having a Senate minority or possibility majority leader that owes their candidate a favor in 2016. The more trouble McConnell finds himself in next year, if indeed Bevin has any chance at all in a primary against the Senate veteran, the more likely it is that Paul will have a powerful motive to help his reelection. The bottom line here is that it will take a lot more than a staffer’s gaffe to inject some life into Bevin’s uphill challenge.

McConnell got a bad break when Democrats wisely passed on putting up Ashley Judd and instead got behind a stronger opponent in Alison Lundergan Grimes. But though polls show Grimes well within striking distance of knocking off McConnell, the numbers may look a bit different next year as her positions are put under the spotlight along with McConnell’s perceived flaws. With considerable resources at his disposal and the very real possibility that 2014 will, as midterms usually are, be a good year for the party out of power, the minority leader may not be in as much trouble as his critics think.