Friday, August 29, 2014

Manager quits McConnell after Iowan pleads guilty in investigation of Ron Paul campaign the manager ran

Jesse Benton
Jesse Benton, the campaign manager for Sen. Mitch McConnell, resigned this afternoon "as a bribery scandal from the 2012 presidential campaign threatens to envelop Benton and become a major distraction for McConnell's campaign," Sam Youngman reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

This morning, Politico reported in its "Morning Score" update, "McConnell's campaign isn't paying much heed to the drama in Iowa over former Iowa state legislator Kent Sorenson's guilty plea to charges stemming from his accepting money to change his endorsement in the 2012 GOP caucuses from Michele Bachmann to Ron Paul. Jesse Benton was the chairman of Paul's 2012 campaign and is now running McConnell's tough reelection fight . . . Benton has not been accused of wrongdoing, and we're told there's been no change in his role." The campaign told Politico it wouldn't be appropriate to comment because McConnell had nothing to do with the Iowa caucuses or the investigation.

This afternoon, The Courier-Journal published a story about the matter, noting that a former McConnell consultant was also in that Paul campaign, and that a 2013 complaint to the Federal Election Commission alleged that both he and Benton were aware of the bribe, according to the Des Moines Register, which published a story about it in March. In a transcript and recording of a phone call published by The Iowa Republican website, Sorenson allegedly told a Paul campaign aide, "Oh, I know that Jesse knows. I know Jesse knows" about a check he got from Benton's deputy but did not cash."The conversation occurred days after Sorenson endorsed Paul, according to the Iowa Republican," The C-J's Jim Carroll and Joe Gerth report.

Then came Youngman's story, which said it was based on "a statement provided first to the Herald-Leader. . . . Benton told the Herald-Leader that he met with McConnell Friday afternoon and offered his resignation, which McConnell 'reluctantly accepted.' . . . He maintained his innocence, faulting 'inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors'," which he said were becoming a distraction to the campaign.

Charly Norton, spokeswoman for Alison Lundergan Grimes's campaign, issued a terse statement: "Senator McConnell owes the people of Kentucky a full account of what he knew and when he knew it." UPDATE, Aug. 29: Before a parade in Tompkinsville Saturday morning, McConnell declined to answer questions from Ronnie Ellis of Community Newspaper Holdings.

Youngman writes, "Benton's role with the McConnell campaign was viewed as a surprise within the political arena given his close ties to the Paul family. In addition to running Paul's presidential campaign, Benton also ran U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's 2010 Senate campaign in Kentucky, and he is married to the older Paul's granddaughter.

"When Benton joined the McConnell camp, observers viewed it as a ploy by McConnell to quiet a restless Tea Party and win favor with Rand Paul. That view was reinforced last year when a secret recording of Benton was released in which he said he was 'holding my nose' working for McConnell in an effort to better position Rand Paul for a 2016 White House run. When the tape became public, Benton expressed his regret for letting down McConnell."

On KET's "Comment on Kentucky" Friday night, The Courier-Journal's Joe Gerth said Benton's departure won't disrupt the McConnell campaign: "I don't expect them to miss a beat because of it." However, Jack Brammer of the Herald-Leader said it is "too early to say how it will affect the race."

UPDATE, Aug. 29: In Politico's Playbook, Mike Allen quotes "an official close to the McConnell campaign" as saying: "The truth is that Josh Holmes has been doing the top job on McConnell's campaign since April. The staff had been restructured pre-primary; the lines of authority were clear. And everyone close to McConnell says he doesn't make any political decisions without Holmes. The headlines about Benton's potential involvement in an Iowa scandal ‎threatened to be a major distraction for a campaign that is largely pulling away from his challenger for the first time. Benton understood he was a potential liability and elected to eliminate himself from the equation rather than take the risk of garnering more headlines for McConnell. His departure, while a short term distraction, changes basically nothing inside Team Mitch."

UPDATE, Aug. 30: Nick Storm of cn|2's "Pure Politics" quotes Manu Raju of Politico: “Josh Holmes was seen as the key decision maker and Jesse’s role had become more focused on grassroots tactics and conservative outreach, which was even more critical during the primary.” Storm's stiry has other reaction and a timeline of the episode, going back to the 2011 allegation by Bachmann that Sorenson had been paid for his support.

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