The bribery scandal surrounding former Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) 2012 presidential bid is threatening to damage his son’s 2016 White House prospects.
The saga took down Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) likely campaign manager, Jesse Benton, who was running Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) reelection bid. And the implications of wrongdoing two years ago could still further trickle down and hobble the younger Paul’s developing presidential campaign apparatus.
Benton, a longtime aide to both Pauls, resigned Friday from the GOP Senate leader’s campaign amid controversy sparked by former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson’s admission in court that he accepted tens of thousands of dollars from representatives associated with Paul’s and Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) campaigns for his endorsement.
Benton ran Ron Paul’s campaign at the time of the alleged bribe, and emails and a phone conversation leaked earlier this year suggest he was aware of, and even engaged in, the scheme. At one point, Sorenson said, “I know Jesse knows.”
In his Friday statement, Benton repeatedly asserted his innocence and said media reports tying him to the bribery are inaccurate.
While his swift departure was meant to minimize damage for McConnell’s campaign, it’s unclear how it could impact his role in a Rand Paul bid.
A week ago, before the Sorenson charges, Benton told The Hill when asked about his plans for 2016 that “whatever happens, I’ll be there for Paul.”
On Tuesday, Benton didn’t respond to questions about whether those plans had changed, and Doug Stafford, who heads up Rand Paul’s political operation and political action committee, also wouldn’t say whether Benton would stay on the Paul political team.
Kentucky Tea Party activist David Adams, who worked on Rand Paul’s 2010 campaign with Benton before leaving in July to lead a governor’s race, said there is “zero indication” anything inappropriate was going on with Paul’s Senate race. But he admitted it was “pretty hard for [the bribery] to not lead back” to Benton.
“I’m surprised at what apparently has happened under the Ron Paul campaign and that amount of money. There’s not a lot of plausible deniability to go around at the very top of the campaign other than perhaps the candidate,” said Adams, who has been critical of McConnell and Benton before.
Hogan Gidley, an adivser to Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, said the investigation could even lead back to Rand Paul, who was a prolific surrogate for his father in 2012 and is close to Benton.
“I can’t imagine that this investigation begins and ends with a rural state senator from Iowa. Obviously the documents with Sorenson’s testimony suggest that the investigation is probably going into some larger legal territory with Bachmann, with Ron Paul and, to whatever extent he’s tied to his father’s campaign, to Rand Paul,” he said.
Regardless of whether there’s a smoking gun linking Benton to the bribery, Paul will likely have to answer for the allegations if he runs in 2016, simply because of his close ties to his father’s campaign apparatus and ideological platform.
Katon Dawson, who worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2012 and is still his liaison in South Carolina, said that Ron Paul has always been Rand’s “greatest asset, and biggest problem.”
“His son has inherited that ability [to appeal to libertarians] and that donor list, but when you inherit that you inherit these types of problems,” the Palmetto State GOP strategist said. “You own a part of it, you own all of it.”
Dawson said Paul now has to make a decision about whether to keep Benton on his political team — and until Paul weighs in, the scandal is “going to have some legs to it.”
Severing ties with Benton would mean the loss of a key figure in the Paul family political network who has strong ties to the libertarian and conservative movements, and it still might not be enough to insulate Paul from questions about the scandal.
Paul’s close relationship with Benton is common knowledge — the latter reportedly moved into Paul’s basement in 2010 to run his Senate campaign, and is married to the senator’s niece, Valori Pyeatt, also a former campaign aide.
Ron Paul’s daughter Lori Pyeatt was his 2012 campaign treasurer, and is now Benton’s mother-in-law.
Taken together, the family ties mean the scandal isn’t likely to go away.
“When their campaign’s up, you can be sure that voters will know of [the bribery],” said Dawson, the Perry aide. “That will stay out there until it’s completely answered and vetted.”
The renewed controversy has also offered Democrats another point in the argument they’re building against the GOP more broadly in preparation for 2016: that the party in general is scandal-prone and unfit to lead the nation.
Michael Czin, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, sounded that theme on Friday.
“It’s obviously troubling. There are a lot of questions that still need to be fleshed out as far as the extent of the bribery,” he said. “It seems to be a systemic problem with the GOP, and it warrants a close look at how Republicans run their campaigns.”
The scandal potentially linking back to Paul is the last thing he wants looming over his prospective presidential bid; two consecutive national polls out over the past two weeks have shown him dropping from a consistent first- or second-place finish to second and fourth places in the potential GOP presidential field.
Associates of Paul defended the candidate and argue the situation has unfolded long before the 2016 campaign.
“I think it’s far enough out that it’s not going to be a big factor,” said Fritz Wenzel, Paul’s pollster. “From a polling perspective, the voters of Iowa and the voters of this country are not concerned about that as a top issue, and they won’t be when they go to choose a Republican nominee.”
Iowa GOP strategist Tim Albrecht said it was too soon to cast judgment on whether the scandal will hurt Paul, but he did note Iowa voters will certainly be interested in the saga as it unfolds.
“I believe that more could come out regarding this case, and what that is remains to be seen. But I think everybody’s going to be watching closely,” he said.
—This piece was updated to correct a quote that was misattributed to Tim Albrecht.