Jesse Benton, manager of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reelection campaign, told a conservative activist in a phone call early this year that he took the job “holding my nose” because it would help Kentucky’s other senator, fellow Republican Rand Paul, in a 2016 presidential run.
“Between you and me, I’m sort of holding my nose for two years because what we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in ’16, so that’s my long vision,” Benton said, according to a recording of the call obtained by The Washington Post.
Benton was speaking with Dennis Fusaro, a onetime campaign aide to former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), father of Rand Paul. Fusaro told The Post on Thursday that he made a recording of the Jan. 9 phone call without Benton’s knowledge.
Benton, who has deep political and personal ties to the Paul family, comes from the libertarian wing of the party that generally views establishment Republicans such as McConnell with disdain.
But in a statement released by the McConnell campaign, Benton pledged his support to the Senate minority leader and decried Fusaro’s actions.
“It is truly sick that someone would record a private phone conversation I had out of kindness and use it to try to hurt me,” Benton said. “I believe in Senator McConnell and am 100 percent committed to his reelection. 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.”
But the remark by Benton, who has served as a top political strategist for both Pauls, could be used as political ammunition against McConnell, who faces a tough reelection fight. His decision last fall to hire Benton, who is married to a granddaughter of Ron Paul, was widely viewed as a move to buttress McConnell’s standing with tea party activists in Kentucky.
The comment was quickly seized upon by McConnell’s challenger for the Republican nomination, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who tweeted that “even Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager thinks Sen. McConnell isn’t conservative.”
The call surfaced Thursday amid a wave of material Fusaro leaked to news organizations this week implicating Ron Paul’s campaign officials in an alleged attempt to pay Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson to drop his support for then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in the 2012 race and endorse Paul.
The e-mails and phone calls expose an ugly feud among Paul aides and could widen ongoing state and federal probes into allegations of financial improprieties by Bachmann’s campaign, including charges of payments made to Sorenson by Bachmann’s organization. The state senator did not return calls for comment.
Fusaro, a gun rights activist who worked on Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential bid, acknowledged that he has had sharp disagreements with other Paul aides. He said he released the material because he believes Benton and other Paul officials had been playing “fast and loose.”
“I just think it’s wrong,” he said. “These guys don’t agree with Ron Paul on a lot of stuff — they just are using him.”
Benton and other Paul aides did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Sorenson served as Bachmann’s state chairman and her most visible ally in the state. But he abruptly dropped his support for her in late December 2011 and endorsed Paul, saying it was clear that she was no longer viable.
When he defected, Bachmann charged that he was being paid to flip to Paul. Sorenson, Paul and his campaign officials vigorously denied the charge.
“I was never offered a nickel from the Ron Paul campaign,” Sorenson told the Des Moines Register in December 2011.
But the materials Fusaro leaked this week tell a different story.
In an Oct. 29, 2011, e-mail, Sorenson associate Aaron Dorr told Paul campaign manager John Tate that the state senator needed $8,000 a month through the fall of 2012 and a $100,000 donation to his leadership PAC in order to endorse Paul. The e-mail was published by the conservative site TheIowaRepublican.com and OpenSecrets.org, the Web site of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Two weeks later, Benton e-mailed Dorr to ask whether Sorenson would consider “joining our team,” according to the documents.
Shortly after Sorenson’s endorsement of Paul, the state senator told Fusaro in a phone conversation that Dimitri Kesari, Paul’s deputy national campaign manager, met him and his wife at a restaurant and gave her a check while Sorenson was in the bathroom. Fusaro recorded the call and gave a copy to TheIowaRepublican.com.
On the call, Sorenson told Fusaro that he did not plan to cash the check, but asked if he should keep it “so I have something over” Kesari.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.