Mitch McConnell’s reelection campaign impressed some, offended others and befuddled many more when it released Tuesday afternoon a cartoonish Auto-Tuned attack video taunting Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who announced that she’ll challenge the Senator minority leader. The manic video, which tries to find words that rhyme with Grimes’ name (“left wing mime” and “sticks to party line,” apparently), has the look and feel of something made by a fanboy Redditor, not one of the best-funded political campaigns in the country — and that’s the point. It’s just the latest salvo in a concerted campaign to make the septuagenarian senator cool on the Internet, and it’s all being led by the man who helped Ron Paul win the Internet half a decade ago.
It took many by surprise last year when Jesse Benton came on board to manage McConnell’s campaign, which promised to be a tough job, considering that McConnell was the least popular senator in the country. Benton cut his teeth working for Ron Paul beginning in 2007. Eventually, he married Paul’s granddaughter and managed Paul’s son Rand’s successful Kentucky Senate campaign. As Dave Weigel wrote last year, Benton was instrumental in helping “[Ron] Paul carve out a new wing in the Republican Party.”
McConnell knew he had to win over, or at least appease, that libertarian wing of the party if he was to avoid a primary challenge. So if he couldn’t be Paul, he would do the next best thing and hire the man behind Paul. Learning from the 2012 presidential campaign, McConnell determined he had to use technology the same way Obama has.
“They set the gold standard for digital engagement in 2012,” Benton said in an interview in May. “I think it’s just natural that you look to your competitor to find best practices, implement what they’re doing that’s the best and try to find additional, new things on your own to improve that.”
So far, that seems to mean a lot of memes. Since Benton took over, “Team Mitch” has rolled out one viral play after another. They taunted Harry Reid on gun control with a Facebook image macro (lifted from Comedy Central); mocked up a fake text message exchange with Democratic Sen. Max Baucus; wheeled around a 7-foot-high stack of paper meant to represent the regulatory overburden of Obamacare; and taunted Obama by posing next to an empty chair at a bar after the president suggested they couldn’t have a beer together.
It’s all meant to emulate the native language of the Internet, and especially places like Reddit or BuzzFeed, which McConnell’s House colleagues are nakedly imitating, and to insist, as Dr. Evil once did, “I’m with it. I’m hip.”
Team Mitch even did a Harlem Shake video (remember that thing?). They’re so concerned about virality that the team may have even purchased views on YouTube to make a video look more popular than it really was.
Whether it will be successful or not remains to be seen, but it probably can’t hurt considering how loathed McConnell is. As for Benton, this is his first major foray outside of Paul World. He’s had a rocky relationship with Paul’s base at times, criticized for skimming too much money off the Paul network for himself, among other things. Last year, Anonymous released a video saying it had a “leak that exposes Jesse Benton['s]…sabotage of the Ron Paul’s campaign during the Republican National Convention (RNC). Speculation Suggest that Jesse Benton was paid off handsomely for his services to sabotage the Ron Paul movement.” On a popular Ron Paul message board, one user responded to the video by saying it was old news: “I know everyone is sick to death about Jesse Benton’s betrayal of of Dr. Paul [sic].”
Which all raises the question of whether this is really just a warmup for Benton to work on Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign, should such a campaign exist.