CLEVELAND -- In a morning interview with CBS News, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) responded for the first time to the indictment of his former Senate campaign chairman and two political allies over a 2011 payoff to an Iowa state senator. The mechanics of the scandal, Paul said, were "confusing." The gist of his take was that a Democratic administration may have acted to hurt a Republican campaign.
"You know, for about four years, there have been these campaign finance regulatory rules that they’ve been going after," Paul said. "It’s a little bit suspicious to me, though, that it just happens to have been four years, and then they decide to do something – that President Obama’s administration just decides to do something – on the eve of the debate."
In conversations here, where staffers and supporters for every Republican campaign have gathered for the first presidential primary debate, Paul's allies have repeatedly questioned the timing of the indictment. Yet the cloud over Paul's campaign had been growing and darkening for, as he said, four years. That cloud had effectively forced Jesse Benton, Paul's 2010 Senate campaign chairman, out of the 2014 re-election campaign of now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Paul had remained loyal to a fault. As best explained by Buzzfeed's McKay Coppins, Jesse Benton had been in Paul's orbit for eight years. He had married into the family, and lived in the basement of Rand Paul's Bowling Green, Ky. home. After the 2014 elections, Paul said he would find a role for Benton, and in April, Benton joined family loyalist John Tate to launch America's Liberty PAC -- the candidate's super PAC, designed to raise $20-30 million for the primaries.
Today, both Benton and Tate announced that they would take a leave of absence from America's Liberty PAC, due to the indictments, notwithstanding the "suspicious" timing. That's led to a change of roles that could go smoothly, or could mutate into a power struggle. As everyone in Paul's orbit condemns the indictments, a rival super PAC is ready to move past the Benton era.
Concerned American Voters PAC is releasing no public statement about the indictments, but it was created almost as a back-up plan for if and when the payoff scandal exploded. Launched by former FreedomWorks CEO and current Young Americans for Liberty president Jeff Frazee, the super PAC was designed to raise and spend money only for grassroots organizing -- not paid media, as many super PACs are born to do. Its existence made sense because of long-standing worries about the scandal and about Benton's ability to raise money.
The first fundraising reports, released last month, bore out those concerns. Benton and Tate's PAC was falling far short of the hauls for rival campaigns, especially the rainmaking efforts for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) There had been discussions about America's Liberty PAC and Concerned American Voters PAC issuing a joint statement, to make their respective $3.1 million and $1.9 million hauls look more impressive. But ALP jumped the gun. The result was negative headlines about Paul's wan fundraising -- this when people knew that an even more negative story, about the bribery scandal, could come at any moment.
America's Liberty PAC's fate is unclear. When asked if it remained Paul's preferred super PAC, Paul spokesman Sergio Gor pointed to a statement that the senator gave The Washington Post about Concerned American Voters PAC. "Matt Kibbe and Jeff Frazee have a proven track record in grassroots activism," Paul had said. "Matt Kibbe and Jeff Frazee have a proven track record in grassroots activism."
That was the warmest thing Paul had said about a group that Benton had seen as a cash-draining nuisance. According to Buzzfeed's Coppins, Benton's move to ALP had been seen as a way for Paul to reward a stalwart, a literal member of his family, who had been ensnared in a pointless scandal. It would be one thing, a body blow, if Benton was indicted while working for the official campaign. It was a smaller story if Benton et al were indicted while working for the super PAC. Yet on CBS, and in statements, Paul is reacting to the indictments as if they were a personal attack, and an injustice. It was either too late to cut ties, or that was something he could not bring himself to do.