As the bus came to a stop near the Dead Sea, Nate Morris and the rest of the gang had one question: Would Rand Paul jump in? "It was a big joke, because we were all wondering," recalls the 33-year-old businessman, who was part of a large group visiting Israel with Kentucky's junior senator. Paul quickly answered in the affirmative. He took off his hiking boots, an orange button-down, and a gray "Army Strong" undershirt, then waded into the salty waters wearing flowered swim trunks. He smeared mud across his cheeks and his bare chest; he raised his arms in triumph.
It was January 2013, and Morris was one of some 50 Americans who had joined Paul for the tour of Israel. Although President Obama hadn't even technically begun his second term, Paul's trip clearly had implications for the next presidential race. The destination itself suggested he was seeking to reassure establishment Republicans that he did not share the hostility of his father—GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul—to the Jewish state. The guest list, meanwhile, read like the manifest of a ship bound for 2016. The state party chairmen of Iowa and South Carolina were there, along with Iowa's Republican National Committeewoman and key religious leaders. When I asked David Lane—the politically active evangelical leader who organized the trip—how the invitees had been chosen, he answered with a question of his own: "What are the first presidential primary states of 2016?"
Yet Nate Morris, a Kentucky resident, did not hail from an early-primary state. Nor was he a religious leader. Nor was he particularly vocal about Israel. Nor did he even know Paul all that well: The two had met only a few months before.
So why was Morris on the trip? Kentucky is not exactly a rich state, but Morris had carved out a reputation as a man with a talent for shaking loose campaign cash. Back in 2004, he was, at 23, by all accounts the country's youngest bundler for George W. Bush, raising at least $50,000 and becoming a "Bush Maverick." His list of contacts had only grown in the years since. "People in politics know who raises money," Morris says. "That's not a secret." In short, Morris was just the kind of moneyman Paul needed if he was going to pursue his presidential ambitions.
But in the 18 months since they rode around Israel together, Nate Morris has become much more than just a fundraiser for Paul. He is today an integral part of the Kentucky senator's political infrastructure: one of Paul's most trusted advisers and—perhaps most important for a politician with a cloistered reputation—a friend.
"I think Nate and Rand are as close as Rand is to anybody in the political world," says Dan Bayens, Paul's Kentucky communications director and the man who introduced them. Paul estimates they've "been together 50 times or 75 times" since they first met in 2012. "I'd consider Nate to be in the inner circle of people we take advice from and who helps us on a daily basis," the senator recently told me. One senior Paul adviser says of Morris, "He's going to be one of the top four, five, or six people on the campaign."
Morris is a relative newcomer to a Rand Paul kitchen Cabinet full of veterans of his father's two presidential bids. There's John Tate, an informal Rand adviser who held senior posts on the elder Paul's 2008 and 2012 campaigns and is now president of the Ron Paul-founded Campaign for Liberty. Doug Stafford, who previously worked with Tate, is now the senator from Kentucky's chief political strategist and executive director of RAND (Reinventing A New Direction) PAC. Jesse Benton, another veteran of the Ron Paul presidential bids, ran the younger Paul's 2010 Senate campaign; he remains close to the candidate, is married to Rand's niece, and is expected to have a senior role in any 2016 campaign. Paul's media consultant is Rex Elsass, who worked on Ron Paul's 2008 bid. His direct-mail fund- raiser, Michael Rothfeld of Saber Communications, is the same one Rand's father used. So is his pollster, Fritz Wenzel.
Morris is very different from this group. He's a mainstream Republican with no major ties to Paul's father but plenty of links to the GOP establishment. His moneyed connections span from coast to coast, and his mainstream pedigree even includes his wife, the granddaughter of a legendary Republican fundraiser.
When Paul first ran for the Senate four years ago, against a candidate favored by the GOP donor class, he "was ridiculed and lambasted and ignored as vigorously as he possibly could have been" by the establishment, says David Adams, who was Paul's 2010 primary campaign manager. Today, Paul's relationship with the GOP's power brokers has changed dramatically—and Morris is both a symptom and a cause of that transformation. Understanding who Nate Morris is—what he believes and how he operates—tells you a lot about the new Rand Paul.
WHEN PEOPLE TALK about Morris, they sound eerily like people talking about a young Bill Clinton. Southern boy (Lexington, Kentucky, versus Hope, Arkansas) raised by a single mom (father departed versus father died) visits Washington in high school (both through Boys Nation—Morris met Clinton; Clinton met JFK), moves to D.C. for college, then works for a powerful home-state senator (Mitch McConnell versus J. William Fulbright). Natural pols, they make fast friends and lasting impressions.
Born to a family of Reagan Democrats, Morris grew up fascinated by politics. He was president of his elementary school and was close to his grandfather, who was a local United Auto Workers leader. Nate's views, however, leaned more to the right. The first week of his first semester at George Washington University in 1999, Morris headed to Capitol Hill, snapping up an internship with Republican Rep. Anne Northup of Kentucky. By the time he graduated, he'd done stints in Sen. McConnell's office; the office of McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, who was President Bush's Labor secretary at the time; and the new Homeland Security office at the White House. Despite his age, he managed to leave an impression. "Nate," McCon- nell said back in 2004, "is the kind of kid you remember."
When Morris first arrived in Washington, he moved into the old Howard Johnson hotel, across from the Watergate, which GW had recently converted into a dorm. He had entered an essay contest and won a room on the seventh floor, where, a quarter-century earlier, the Watergate burglars had set up a lookout. A Washington Post story about the new dorm tagged Morris an "aspiring politician." "He's already known in the dorm as a natural campaigner—he knows nearly everyone's name, major, and hometown," the paper wrote. Shawn Costa, who lived on the same floor and is now in the real-estate business, remembers being impressed—and intimidated. "When I saw how serious people like Nate were, I backed off poli sci and ended up being a business major," Costa laughs.
Morris's biggest break, though, came in the classroom. Jack Oliver, then Bush's chief fundraiser, was teaching a graduate-level course on money in politics. Even though he was only an undergrad, Morris petitioned a dean for an exemption to snag a spot. Oliver quickly took Morris under his wing and, when he graduated a few months later, enrolled him in Bush's Maverick program, which was designed to encourage the next generation of fundraisers under 40. "It was very obvious to me this was a young man that was going places," Oliver says. He notes that, of all his students, Morris is the only one in politics whom "I still keep in touch with."
Not long after graduating and becoming a Bush bundler, Morris moved to China for a business teaching fellowship. During his time there, he worked for Kentucky's international trade office in the country. "I just kind of showed up and said, 'Look, I'm a Kentuckian. I'm here,' " Morris recalls. "I think they were kind of taken aback."
“Nate Morris is like that guy in Shawshank Redemption who just knows how to make things happen.”
After returning to the States, he enrolled in the graduate program at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, where—no surprise—he soon found himself studying under former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Morris subsequently moved back to Kentucky and, in August 2009, cofounded a company called Rubicon Global, which he calls "the Uber of garbage." The company's aim is nothing less than to upend the waste industry. Rubicon doesn't own any trash trucks or landfills. Instead, it uses technology to match clients to a network of local vendors who can take away their waste, often to be recycled on the cheap. The goal is to divert trash from the dump and save clients money along the way. "This is a market-driven solution to an environmental problem," Morris says.
Morris is modest about Rubicon. "I'm just a garbageman," he tells me over breakfast, as he spins his fork around a plate of three egg whites and two veggie patties. (We are at Doodles, a restaurant in Lexington, which Morris picked. It goes by the tagline "comfort food with a conscience.") Rubicon is still a private company so it keeps its books closed, but it appears to be a success, boasting that it serves approximately 50,000 sites in all 50 states, with offices in Georgia, Kentucky, New York, and Virginia.
Rubicon's business advisory board reads like a who's who of the GOP establishment: In addition to Morris's mentor Jack Oliver, other board members include former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, now the head of the auto lobby; former Attorney General John Ashcroft; and Blakely Page, an associate of the Koch brothers. Indeed, Morris's reach is legendary. "Nate Morris is like that guy in Shawshank Redemption who just knows how to make things happen," says Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to James Comer, the Kentucky agriculture commissioner widely viewed as the front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2015 (for whom Morris also fundraises). "He knows everybody."
This is by design. "One of the things that Jack Oliver preached to me from day one is that so much of success in politics is around long-term friendships, loyal friendships, really building a rapport with somebody and developing this long-term perspective about making friends, as opposed to going out and finding donors," Morris says. "If you've got friends, they're going to be with you through thick and thin, and they're going to help you regardless of political climate or what you're facing. If you can stay focused on building relationships, with integrity and around loyalty, that's really the most important thing."
Morris's most important relationship, the one with his wife, Jane Mosbacher, began on a blind date in Georgetown. Six months later, they were engaged. They wed on New Year's Eve 2011. Jane Mosbacher Morris has deep ties to the GOP establishment of her own: Her father ran the Overseas Private Investment Corp. in George W. Bush's White House. And her grandfather was Robert Mosbacher Sr.—an oil mogul, onetime Commerce secretary, and legendary Republican fundraiser who served as a top presidential moneyman, beginning with Gerald Ford in 1976 and ending with John McCain in 2008.
MORRIS MET RAND PAUL on Capitol Hill in the summer of 2012, shortly before the August congressional recess. They hit it off almost immediately. Paul loved the story of Rubicon. Here was a young private businessman tackling a public problem, which simultaneously appealed to Paul's libertarian political instincts and to his self-described "Crunchy Con" brand of conservatism. "The business model is awesome and something we love," says Doug Stafford, Paul's chief political strategist.
Paul invited Morris to Israel, and Morris began to put Paul in touch with GOP contributors. "Certainly, my background with the more establishment types and being involved in Bush World in '04, that certainly allows me to go different places and draw from that network," Morris says. Morris joined Paul on domestic trips, arranging meetings with tech elites in California and banker types in New York. In Texas, Morris set up a February meeting between Paul and George P. Bush, the candidate for state lands commissioner and the son of a potential 2016 opponent, Jeb Bush. This spring, Morris helped arrange a Manhattan sit-down with wealthy investor Herb Allen III. It was a success not just because Allen wrote Paul a $1,000 check but, more importantly, because he subsequently invited Paul to attend his annual summit of the wealthy and powerful in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Of course, Paul has one financial advantage that other Republican candidates won't have: a loyal grassroots army of libertarian-leaning donors who helped fuel his father's $40 million 2012 campaign. But Rand won't be able to win the presidency with these small-dollar donors alone. He'll need the kinds of uber-wealthy benefactors who shunned his father—and that's where Morris helps. "He's been getting Rand meetings with people who, a couple years ago, wouldn't give him the time of day," says the senior Paul adviser. (Morris is unpaid for this work. Paul's formal money operation is headed by Erika Sather, a former Club for Growth fundraiser. Other key figures in Paul's financial inner circle include professor and writer Mallory Factor, who was also on the Israel trip, and fellow Kentuckian Cathy Bailey.) "Probably what impressed me the most is that a lot of people offer to do things," Paul says of Morris. "He just started doing things. It's really the follow-up. He's somebody who takes the bull by the horns and just takes action." As Stafford puts it, "Nate is a good friend who believes in Rand. He wants to go out and, for lack of a better word, evangelize on that subject."
Among those Morris has helped connect Paul with is his father-in-law, Robert Mosbacher Jr. It was a reunion of sorts. "Jane's dad actually was a primary opponent of my dad in 1984," Paul says. They both lost the GOP primary to Phil Gramm. But Rand and Mosbacher Jr. had debated at one point when a 21-year old Paul filled in for his father. "It was neat for me to be on the stage with a very successful oilman from a very famous family," Paul says.
WITH THICK BROWN hair and still-boyish looks, Morris is polished beyond his years. He can speak in sound bites that don't sound canned—at least the first time you hear them. Over breakfast at Doodles, he recounts to me the story of Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of KFC, and how he "got the idea to franchise chicken" and took his "show on the road." Morris then repeats himself, almost verbatim, in a speech hours later at an event sponsored by the local chamber of commerce.
Morris speaks with confidence—until I ask about his personal politics. At that point, he begins to spin his wedding ring and rub his temples. His answer meanders until he settles on a milquetoast formulation: "My biggest issue is making sure people have access to the American Dream." Friends and colleagues don't talk about Morris in traditional ideological terms. They talk about his ideology of success. During our conversation, Morris eventually defines his politics as "pretty conservative," but he won't name an issue on which he disagrees with Paul. "I'm not going to be an armchair quarterback," he says.
If Morris sounds like an ultracautious politician, there's probably good reason for that. It's widely presumed in Kentucky that he will someday run for office.
This isn't the first time Morris has had difficulty articulating what he believes. Back in 2004, the Lexington Herald-Leader published a piece about the young bundler that read, "Ask Morris what his cause is … and the answer's unclear." The contrast with the principled, ideology-obsessed libertarian world of Rand Paul's father could hardly be greater.
If Morris sounds like an ultracautious politician, there's probably good reason for that. It's widely presumed in Kentucky that he will someday run for office. "I cannot imagine a future without Nate Morris on a ballot," says VonLuehrte, Comer's chief of staff. "I can't imagine it." He's already on Comer's short list for running mate as lieutenant governor. Though no formal vetting has begun, Comer says he has a Google Alert for Morris set up. "He's in the news all the time," Comer tells me. "This guy is going places!" (Morris says he is currently focused on Rubicon, not a political career.)
Morris does have strong feelings on one key point: that the GOP needs to change in order to succeed. "Look, you can only get kicked in the face so many times and you've got to say, this isn't working," he tells me. "I think necessity is the mother of all inventions. The situation we're in today is that we have to rethink everything as a party. We have to reinvent the brand. We have to kick down barriers and doors that typically prevented others from getting in. … I think Senator Paul has demonstrated he's able to have those conversations and to really articulate those types of themes."
In addition to a conviction that the GOP must rebrand itself, Morris has one other thing in common with many supporters of Ron and Rand Paul: his age. But here, too, he is different. "The Ron Paul movement had a lot of young people, not really young professionals," says Comer, who was the only member of the Kentucky Statehouse to endorse Paul during his 2010 primary. "Nate complements the base that Rand inherited, plus he adds to it."
NOT SURPRISINGLY, Paul bristles a bit at the suggestion that his relationship with Morris is overtly political. "I guess I don't really see things so calculating. … I just see Nate as somebody I met and who I like," Paul says. Classifications are just not his thing. "I don't think it's so much, 'Oh, he is this category of person.' I just sort of see him for who he is. But does he work hard to meet people for his business as well as for helping me to meet people? Yeah, he's been a great and very valuable ally in that sense. I just wouldn't categorize him as somebody who I say, 'Oh, I met him for this purpose.' I guess I see people not so much in categories as just people we've developed a good friendship with."
It's undeniable, however, that Morris is having an impact on Paul's presidential prospects. Their friendship is hardly the only link Paul has built to the GOP establishment in recent years—for instance, his former aide Benton is currently serving as McConnell's campaign chief—but it is one that is clearly paying off.
Morris's coming-out party of sorts as a player in Paul's world took place this past January when he organized a fundraiser at the Atlanta home of Lane Moore, the executive chairman of Rubicon Global. Paul lingered for a long time as the crowd munched on a spread of tenderloin, shrimp, and salmon. Proceeds went to Paul's Senate reelection campaign—though, like all the money he's raising these days, it could eventually be transferred to a future presidential bid.
The event was timed to coincide with a Rubicon investors' conference, so Blunt, the former Missouri governor, was among the attendees. "Any potential presidential candidate would be fortunate to have somebody like Nate out there beating the bushes for him," Blunt told me. Jack Oliver, who says his "goal is to get Jeb Bush to run," was nonetheless on the host committee. In a matter of hours, Paul collected an estimated $150,000. "That," the senator told me, "was a big success."
He's going to need many more similar successes if he's to capture the presidency. And Morris, it appears, will be there to help. "With people like Nate Morris, he appeals to your Romney donors, which is something his father could never do, ever," Comer says. Paul, he continues, wants to appeal to those donors "because you have to do that to win. Rand is running to win. He's not running to make a statement or to prove a point. He's running to win."
This article appears in the June 21, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Bridge.