McConnell campaign manager resigns amid Iowa bribery scandal

 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) campaign manager Jesse Benton resigned Friday amid growing speculation over his involvement in a vote-buying scandal when he led former Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) 2012 presidential campaign.

“Recently, there have been inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors about me and my role in past campaigns that are politically motivated, unfair and, most importantly, untrue,” said Benton in a statement. “I hope those who know me recognize that I strive to be a man of integrity.”

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Benton said he loved both Kentucky and McConnell, and wouldn’t allow “anything or anyone to get in the way” of the Republican Senate leader’s tough reelection fight against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

“That includes myself,” he added.

“The press accounts and rumors are particularly hurtful because they are false. However, what is most troubling to me is that they risk unfairly undermining and becoming a distraction to this reelection campaign,” Benton wrote.

The news of Benton's departure was first reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader

Democrats and Republicans both said his speedy resignation likely minimized much of the damage his continued presence on the McConnell campaign might've caused. But the fallout for Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) potential presidential bid — which Benton was expected to helm, provided McConnell won reelection this fall — remains unclear.

“Working for Mitch McConnell is one of the great honors of my life. He is a friend, a mentor and a great man this commonwealth desperately needs. I cannot, and will not, allow any possibility that my circumstances will effect [sic] the voters’ ability to hear his message and assess his record. This election is far too important and the stakes way too high,” he continued.

Questions have long swirled about whether Benton, a longtime confidante to the Paul family, knew about a scheme to pay $25,000 to an Iowa state senator in return for his vote during the 2012 campaign.

After denying the payment previously, former state Sen. Kent Sorenson (R) pleaded guilty Wednesday to concealing $73,000 in under-the-table payments for switching his allegiance from Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) campaign to Paul.

Benton has denied any knowledge of the vote-buying scheme.

Emails and private conversations leaked over the past year have not provided a "smoking gun" that shows Benton's involvement, though they have raised questions about what he knew and when.

But there may be lingering ties between McConnell's campaign and the bribery scandal. One of the key players in that scheme, Paul presidential campaign aide Dimitri Kesari, appears to have been paid nearly $62,000 from the McConnell campaign in 2013.

Kesari was the Paul campaign liaison that Sorenson alleged, during a private phone conversation that was leaked to the press, delivered him a check as part of the bribe. Sorenson also suggested during the conversation that Benton knew about the bribe.

The campaign of McConnell's opponent, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, said questions still linger for McConnell, despite Benton's resignation. The two are locked in a tight and bitter battle in the Bluegrass state. Even in the deep red state, McConnell is seen as Republicans' most dangered incumbent thanks to his low approval ratings in the state. 

"Senator McConnell owes the people of Kentucky a full account of what he knew and when he knew it," Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said in an email.

Democrats privately admitted Benton's move likely reduced the damage any controversy would do to McConnell's campaign. But they also believe the situation still underscores their charge that McConnell is the cause of dysfunction in Congress, as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky said Friday.

"The latest scandal tied to Mitch McConnell is more evidence of why Kentuckians view him as the walking talking embodiment of all the partisanship and gridlock in Washington and is another reason why Kentucky desperately needs and deserves a new Senator," said Barasky. 

Prior to Benton's resignation, Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo told The Hill that the swirling scandal was “another piece of evidence that shows that you really can’t trust” Kentucky Republicans.

“They’re telling you one thing but look what their morals are. Look what their character is,” he said,

Stumbo pointed to a rash of investigations into the campaign activities of Republican elected officials in Kentucky as evidence the bribery scandal, and Benton’s potential involvement in it, was just par for the course for the party there.

“I think it clearly calls in to public debate the moral fiber of the Republican Party and its’ inability to really abide by the law,” he said.

He stood by those comments after Benton resigned, but wondered whether his move had taken "some of the luster off" the issue.

Stumbo also said post-Labor Day, the campaigns will likely start to engage on the issues, and "these type of little things will likely just be an afterthought."

Both McConnell and Paul's tight-knit spheres of influence, which often overlap, were bunkered down Friday, and calls and emails to half a dozen former and current aides to the two went unanswered prior to Benton's announcement.

McConnell's campaign didn't respond to the most immediate question confronting the senator: Who will lead his operation heading into the final stretch of an already-heated fight, that's only expected to get tougher headed into the fall?

The most likely pick to replace Benton is Josh Holmes, McConnell's former chief of staff who left his office to work for the National Republican Senatorial Committee but has continued to heavily advise McConnell's race and was involved in its day-to-day operations. 

Calls and emails to both Benton and Holmes were not returned Friday evening.

The one McConnell affiliate who did weigh in was in damage control mode. 

Scott Jennings, a former McConnell aide who currently runs a pro-McConnell super-PAC, dismissed the idea that voters would be swayed by Benton's resignation.

"I don't think people generally know who the staff of the campaigns are, and I don't think they vote based on that," he told The Hill.

But Jennings was also quick to distance McConnell from Benton.

"Nothing involving Jesse or that particular campaign has any connection to Mitch McConnell whatsoever. This is a race about McConnell's views and record" versus Grimes' lack thereof, he said.

He also said he had a "tremendous amount of respect" for Benton for resigning, a move Jennings called "an honorable and certainly gutsy thing to do."

This post was updated at 11:34 p.m.