WASHINGTON — It was the last few grueling weeks of Kentucky's tough U.S. Senate race and Republican candidate Rand Paul, a doctor from Bowling Green who'd been catapulted into the national spotlight by the tea party movement, prepared to emerge from the campaign bus with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The stop was scheduled to be a short one. A quick speech, sound bites for the press, a photo op, back on the road and, for McConnell, the Senate minority leader and his state's senior senator, on to other pressing matters.
But something extraordinary happened.
McConnell looked around at the gathering and realized that 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. It's in many ways symbolic of the awkward liaison the Republican Party and the tea party movement have been struggling to perfect over the past year in the wake of the latter's broad gains in the House of Representatives 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."
But McConnell and Paul have developed a somewhat friendly and mutually beneficial relationship.
Months after that joint appearance, McConnell, sitting in his leadership office on Capitol Hill, mused 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 on the art and science of politics.
"Rand is smart and wants to soak up as much of McConnell's knowledge," said Olson, who served as 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 went 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 over the course of 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. And although Paul was critical of Washington leadership before he took office, he says he's come to understand that governance requires people like McConnell, who within his party is "someone in leadership who tries to get consensus," as well as someone like "myself, more of an agitator."
Though Paul's political mentor is his father, libertarian standard-bearer Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the younger Paul's recent showdown over the rights of gun owners and extending the USA PATRIOT Act was a page right out of McConnell's tactical playbook, Olson said. Paul's move, though unsuccessful, was a direct result of closely 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 and called weathering the subsequent backlash "courageous."
"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."
Republican leadership and people up for re-election who need to deal with the tea party quickly realized that they needed to be strategic when dealing with the grass-roots group, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for 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 have 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 some 40,000 cylinders of depleted uranium at Kentucky's Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, sell it and use the money to help with environmental cleanup.
As the men gingerly build a cordial working relationship, they're aided in part by the friendship between McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and Paul's wife, Kelley. The women bonded over their shared experience of being married to men who were in the harsh 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. 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 developing a thick skin when dealing with the news media. Chao recently convinced Paul, and by extension Paul's husband and some of their family members, to attend a White House picnic where McConnell also made the rounds.
"There are only two of us," Chao said about being the wife of a Kentucky senator. "It's comforting to have another person who understands some of the concerns of what it's like to be a Senate spouse."
McConnell and Paul's relationship remains a work in progress, however.
"We have a friendship," Paul said. "I'm not saying we go out and get beers or anything. But we're friends."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011