Stafford's job is a high-profile test case for the fortunes of the tea party in Washington.
A minor media kerfuffle erupted when Kentucky tea-party darling Rand Paul, who had railed against the influence of lobbyists during his 2010 Senate campaign to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), hired Stafford, a former lobbyist, as his Senate chief of staff.
Stafford said the story was overblown. While it's "technically true" that he registered as a lobbyist to work for grassroots campaigns like the anti-union National Right to Work, Stafford said his job was a far cry from the kind done by the corporate lobbyists that Paul condemned during the 2010 campaign.
"My friends were kind of amused by that," Stafford said.
But the criticism echoes a theme likely to resonate for Paul and other tea-party Republicans in the 112th Congress. Democrats and establishment Republicans are waiting to see how candidates who ran fiercely anti-Washington campaigns fare once they arrive in compromise-friendly Washington.
It's telling that as his top staffer, Paul chose Stafford, a campaign aide who has never before worked on the Hill.
That's not to say that Stafford doesn't know his way around the legislative process. He's spent the past dozen years at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which fights against unions and says no workers should be forced to join them. Recently, he was closely involved in opposing the union-friendly Employee Free Choice Act, which contained the "card check" provision that business groups railed against.
Stafford first encountered the Paul family when he consulted for the Campaign for Liberty, founded by Rand's father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Stafford was one of the younger Paul's closest campaign allies. "I talked to him when he first decided to throw his hat in the ring," he said. "I was somebody who helped him with advice, at first, and talked things through with him." But soon Stafford had a more formal role as one of the campaign's top consultant.
When Paul asked Stafford to join him in Washington, he couldn't turn him down.
Stafford hit the ground running as chief of staff, trying to learn the ins-and-outs of Senate procedure.
"There are different avenues you can take in the job," Stafford said short before Paul assumed office. "I probably will lean toward keeping my hand in the policy," he said.
That means helping his boss push to balance the budget, an issue that Paul owned during his campaign. Stafford sadi he expected to get into the nitty-gritty of the "hundreds of billions of dollars" he says need to be cut from the budget.
Stafford said he's seen a shift in the way Congress handles spending since the 2010 midterms. "The debate is going to get even tougher when the new Congress comes in," he said. "That's when we're going to find out who's hearing what people are saying, and who's gotten the message from the election."
In His Own Words
"At least we can agree that the mayor of your town or the governor of your state should be making these calls, not the busybodies in Congress," Stafford, then vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, told conservative talk-radio show host Lars Larson in 2010.