Politics makes strange bedfellows and there was no pairing stranger in the 2014 election cycle than when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hired Jesse Benton to be his campaign manager. Benton is closely aligned with Ron and Rand Paul. He worked on both of Ron’s presidential campaigns and ran Rand’s 2010 Senate campaign. The easy line about Benton is that he’s so close to the Pauls that he could be family, except for the fact that he is family: Benton is married to one of Ron Paul’s granddaughters.
The hiring seemed to inaugurate a détente between Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell. Paul had won his Senate primary in 2010 by beating Trey Grayson, a McConnell protégé, and by effectively shredding the Kentucky Republican establishment. Mitch McConnell is the Kentucky Republican establishment. But both needed each other: Paul needed to build a strong relationship with McConnell to gain national credibility for a presidential bid and McConnell needed Paul to be able to win his primary in 2014. As a result of this shotgun marriage, Benton became McConnell’s campaign manager.
The relationship has had hiccups since. Most notably in August of 2013, a recording was leaked in which Benton said he was “holdin’ my nose” to run 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.” The campaign blew it off by releasing a picture of Benton holding his nose while standing next to a smiling McConnell. Peter Hamby at CNN later reported that the leak “genuinely hurt” McConnell’s feelings.
Now McConnell could face real harm from his connections with Benton, as an unfolding campaign-finance investigation into the 2012 GOP presidential primaries is making headlines.
On Wednesday, former Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson pleaded guilty in federal court to endorsing Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign in exchange for secret payments and then lying about the payoff to investigators. Sorenson, who had previously been backing Michele Bachmann in exchange for alleged illegal payments, jumped ship to back Paul only days before the Iowa caucuses in exchange for $73,000. So far, there is no evidence that Benton dealt directly with the disgraced legislator. However, leaked emails from Dennis Fusaro, a former aide to Rep. Paul, imply that Benton may have had knowledge of the campaign’s negotiations with Sorenson.
The emails became public knowledge around the same time as the “holdin’ my nose” leak, and the specter of the Iowa scandal has always loomed at the edges of the McConnell reelection campaign. But Sorenson’s guilty plea this week, which also included the filing of two sealed documents in court, now moves everything one step closer to Benton. The most notable name directly linked to the exchange of funds from Rep. Paul’s campaign to Sorenson is former Paul deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari, who briefly did consulting work for the McConnell campaign in 2013.
Sorenson’s plea is already an acknowledgement that he received secret money from a campaign that Benton was running. If, as potentially indicated by the sealed court filings, the former state senator is offering testimony as well, there’s no telling where it could lead. Peter Carr, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.
Benton also didn’t respond for a request for comment. His boss simply sidestepped the situation entirely. In a statement, Allison Moore, a spokesperson for the McConnell campaign, told The Daily Beast, “Sen. McConnell obviously has nothing to do with the Iowa presidential caucus or this investigation so it would be inappropriate for his campaign to comment on this situation.”
In the meantime, with Election Day just over two months away, it doesn’t particularly matter for McConnell whether Benton is guilty, innocent, or something in between.
McConnell, who is in a very competitive race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, just has to hope that there are no new developments until after Nov. 4.
After all, any time that a campaign manager makes news instead of the candidate, it’s bad for both. But it’s especially damaging when the headline is about a bribery scandal.