Campaign Shakeup

McConnell Campaign Manager Resigns Amid Payola Scandal in Iowa

Paid endorsements, cover-ups, lying to investigators… Illegalities by a lowly Iowa state senator’s campaign in 2012 shake up Kentucky politics.

Jesse Benton, a confidant of Sen. Rand Paul as well as campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, resigned on Friday amid a growing scandal stemming from his time working on Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. Benton’s resignation comes with implications for Sen. Rand Paul, Ron’s son, as he was widely expected to play a prominent role on the junior Kentucky Senator’s all-but-certain presidential campaign.

His resignation is tied to the Wednesday guilty plea in federal court by former Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson, for taking $73,000 in secret payments from Ron Paul’s campaign in exchange for switching his endorsement from Michele Bachmann to Ron Paul just days before the 2012 Iowa caucuses.

Emails have been leaked implying that Benton, who was Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign chairman, knew of the payments, but no direct evidence has yet to emerge. However, the timing of his resignation does raise questions about whether Sorenson implicated him. There were two sealed documents filed in federal court along with the guilty plea on Wednesday and other 2012 Ron Paul campaign staffers have been directly implicated.

While it was legal for Sorenson to be paid by the Paul campaign, it would have violated Iowa Senate ethics rules. To avoid this, Sorenson sought to have the money from the Paul campaign funneled through a third party so they wouldn’t be publicly reported. He then lied about this to investigators. Both are federal crimes, and he now faces up to 20 years in prison.

McConnell’s relationship to the younger Paul, and thus to Benton, is complex. In 2010, Benton managed Rand Paul’s Senate campaign, wherein his primary victory over Trey Grayson, a McConnell apprentice, came at a cost to the Kentucky GOP establishment, of which McConnell is a central figure. Benton is a longtime confidant of both Pauls, and is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter.

McConnell hired Benton in 2013, although he was seen by the McConnell camp as a necessary evil to to assuage the conservative base. The senior senator from Kentucky was expected to be in a difficult primary campaign against a Tea Party challenger, but McConnell went on to beat his in a blowout.

For his part, Benton’s decision to work for McConnell was largely motivated by his desire to benefit the younger Paul and his presumed presidential bid. An alliance with McConnell would help give Paul credibility within the GOP establishment, and if McConnell actively got behind Paul’s presidential bid, it would cool the fears of many party elders that Rand is as far to the fringe as his father.

But in August 2013, a recording was leaked, in which Benton could be heard saying he was “holdin’ my nose” working with the McConnell campaign, “because what we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in ‘16, so that’s my long vision.”

In a statement to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, Benton said he offered his resignation with a “heavy heart,” but that he was innocent, despite what he called “inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors” to the contrary. “This decision breaks my heart, but I know it is the right thing for Mitch, for Kentucky and for the country.”

Benton’s decision to resign likely will have little effect on McConnell’s campaign against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who trails by 2 points in the latest poll by the Louisville Courier-Journal. Benton had already been playing a greatly reduced role in recent months as Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, had become de facto campaign manager.

But being forced to resign two years before the presidential campaign likely will hamper Benton’s chances of joining Paul’s potential 2016 campaign.