WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made no secret that he'll support his fellow Kentuckian, Sen. Rand Paul, should Paul run for president in 2016.
And Paul has also made no secret that he very, very likely will do just that.
But there's a lot of time between now and the election, and at least two other Republican senators (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) who seem to hold the same ambition. The open question: What happens when one of the most powerful lawmakers in D.C. is already committed to a candidate — and one with very distinct policy ideas?
Paul and other Republican senators dismissed the idea it would be a problem, and though a source close to McConnell dismissed the issue as well, the source acknowledged the majority leader is aware of the potential for conflict.
When asked directly by BuzzFeed News in New Hampshire last week if he felt there'd be any tension with Republicans on Capitol Hill over McConnell's support, Paul bluntly replied, "No."
That doesn't mean that his relationship with McConnell won't have its benefits. Paul has a direct line of access to McConnell and he said he speaks with him regularly about his legislative priorities.
"There are a lot of things I'm working on that I'm interested in getting done. Probably the things in the first few months that I'd like to get passed is something on [tax] repatriation. I'm working with [California Democrat] Sen. Boxer on it, I've talked to Sen. McConnell about it," Paul said. "I work with Sen. McConnell on stuff, I make sure he knows what I'm doing to try and get it across the finish line."
The relationship, at times uneasy, has benefited both. Paul endorsed McConnell early on in his 2014 re-election race, and helped him during a contentious Tea Party primary challenge. What each gets out of the exchange is clear: the powerful McConnell is a good ally to have for Paul, and the popular Paul delivered key support for McConnell in their home state.
Paul and McConnell's Senate colleagues won't say they're worried, though, that the majority leader would potentially show preferential treatment to Paul.
"Mitch is not going to take his support for Rand and do anything that's not in the best interest of the conference. No one worries about that," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, himself weighing a bid for president. "I admire Mitch for supporting his colleague, it's the right thing to do but in terms of how we run the senate or what bills come up I don't think presidential politics is going to matter to Mitch."
Sen. Jeff Sessions told BuzzFeed News that McConnell's support for Paul would be "a positive for Rand," although he doubted many other Senators would rush to join him in that endorsement.
"[McConnell] will have to be balanced. I don't think he could give one person in the Senate an advantage simply because they are running for president," Sessions said. "But Rand's able to advocate his own legislation pretty good."
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist, said the relationship is unlikely to cause problems — for now. "The challenge could come during the Republican primary debates where the stakes are high and McConnell throws his weight behind legislation Paul has at a critical juncture," he said.
Like McConnell, Harry Reid's Senate conference in 2008 was crowded with would-be nominees, including President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Sen. Chris Dodd.
Unlike McConnell, however, Reid hadn't just come off a reelection race in which he leaned heavily on one of the contenders. That allowed Reid to stay out of the primary process altogether. In fact, despite rumors at the time that the Nevada Democrat preferred Obama over his other colleagues — a rumor his office vigorously and repeatedly denied — Reid did not use his considerable power in the chamber to Obama's benefit. Former aides to Reid said they were under strict instruction to not show any favoritism when putting together press conferences or caucus events.
Sources close to McConnell also say that he's aware of the potential for conflict, and is "deeply serious" about not playing 2016 favorites.
"McConnell's central premise for returning the Senate to regular order is to stop the practice of using the floor as a campaign studio," said one source with knowledge of McConnell's thinking. "The same principle applies to his own conference as it does to Democrats."
"I imagine McConnell speaks frequently with Sen. Paul about issues pertaining to Kentucky and the nation," the source continued, "but the entire GOP conference knows that he's deadly serious about not allowing campaign politics, presidential or otherwise, shape the business they do in the Senate."
McConnell has also been clear that there are areas where he and Paul disagree. But by McConnell's own admission, the two have a "close relationship" these days.
"We didn't start out that way, but we ended up being big allies. He was very helpful to me," McConnell said at a Politico event in December. "And obviously I'm going to support somebody from my own state. And everybody understands that."
Don Stewart, McConnell's deputy chief of staff, reiterated in a statement that the two have a "very close working relationship."
"While they don't agree on every single issue, they've been able to do a lot together to advance the interests of all Kentuckians," he said. "That relationship will continue and Senator McConnell is proud to support his fellow Kentuckian in whatever path he chooses."
Sen. Jerry Moran, another ally of McConnell's who led the Senate Republicans' campaign arm last cycle, said that it was nothing new that senators with ambitions for higher office would seek out support from their home state colleagues.
"I don't see anyway that it matters. Sen. McConnell is still going to be Sen. McConnell and his support for a fellow Kentuckian wouldn't intrude or interfere," he said. "We always have lots of senators who express interest in running for president and other senators interested in supporting their colleagues."