By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
The re-election campaign of Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell is again reeling after the release of a secret recording of campaign staff.
But unlike the ballyhooed surreptitious recording of a campaign staff meeting last February by a couple of Democratic activists, this time the wound may have been self-inflicted by campaign manager Jesse Benton.
“Between you and me, I’m sort of holding my nose for two years because what we’re doing here will be a benefit to Rand in ’16,” Benton is heard saying on the tape. “That’s my long vision.”
The recording was made public by The Economic Policy Journal, which said it was made in January 2013, months after Benton became McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager. The story was published in The Weekly Standard.
Benton is married to former U.S. Congressman and one-time Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul’s granddaughter and the niece of Kentucky’s other Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who is exploring a 2016 run for the White House.
Benton managed the elder Paul’s 2012 campaign and Rand Paul’s successful 2010 general election campaign for the Senate. McConnell hired Benton last September to manage his re-election campaign, a move widely viewed as an effort to shore up his support among tea party Republicans.
The Economic Policy Journal said the recording was made without Benton’s knowledge by a person who called Benton about allegations that a Ron Paul campaign staff person had paid an Iowa state senator for his endorsement of Paul during the 2012 Republican presidential primary. Benton denied any knowledge of that allegation during the recorded phone call.
Benton issued the following statement Thursday:
“It is truly sick that someone would record a private conversation I had out of kindness and use it to try to hurt me. I believe in Senator McConnell and am 100 percent committed to his re-election. Being selected to lead his campaign is one of the great honors of my life and I look forward to victory in November of 2014.”
Later, Allison Moore, spokeswoman for the McConnell campaign, said the campaign would make no comment beyond Benton’s statement.
But the campaign later Thursday linked a photo on Twitter of McConnell smiling and standing next to Benton holding his nose (https://twitter.com/Team_Mitch/status/365582786062606336/photo/1).
McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, faces a suddenly difficult road to re-election. Democrats have recruited first-term Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to run and Louisville investment manager Matthew Bevin was recruited to run against McConnell in the Republican Primary by some Kentucky tea party groups.
Bevin was quick to pounce Thursday.
“Even Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, thinks something stinks with the Mitch McConnell campaign,” Bevin said in a written statement.
Bevin said Benton’s comments on the recording “shows that even McConnell’s top guy realizes that his boss is not a true conservative and after 30 years of voting for big-government and big-spending bills does not deserve to be re-elected.”
Grimes’ campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton said the Grimes campaign had no comment on the Benton story.
McConnell has had a touchy relationship with those who identify with the tea party. In 2010, McConnell openly backed Rand Paul’s opponent Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the U.S. Senate race.
After Paul defeated Grayson by double digits, McConnell moved quickly to repair relations with the younger Paul, campaigning for Paul in the general election and advising Benton who managed Paul’s general election campaign.
McConnell has also allowed Paul to offer bills and amendments in the Senate, giving a freshman first-term senator more than typical opportunities to make his mark. Then last September, McConnell hired Benton.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.