Gaffes rarely cause a campaign to unravel. But the revelation that Mitch McConnell's campaign manager privately confided he's "sorta holding my nose" while working for the senator's reelection could still pack a wallop.
The content of Jesse Benton's remark was bad enough, suggesting that even the conservatives on McConnell's payroll don't like him. But the timing was worse: It comes just as the Senate minority leader is trying to extinguish a fledgling primary challenge from the right by Louisville-area businessman Matt Bevin. A serious, sustained Republican rival would not only threaten McConnell's grip on the nomination, it would divert his attention from the general-election opponent many consider his most serious threat—Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.
"I think Jesse spoke for Republicans in Kentucky and all across the country when he said he had to hold his nose to support Senator McConnell," said Matt Hoskins, spokesman for the Senate Conservatives Fund. "McConnell's liberal record and his failure to lead on key issues is very disappointing."
Benton made the remark during a private phone call with Dennis Fusaro, who appeared to secretly record the conversation. Fusaro and Benton had worked together on Ron Paul's presidential campaign last year, which Benton managed before moving on to McConnell.
"Between you and me, I'm sorta holdin' my nose for two years," Benton says on the recording, which was posted Thursday at the Economic Policy Journal. He said he hoped what he was doing would be "a big benefit to Rand in '16. That's my long vision." It was a reference to a potential 2016 presidential run by Rand Paul, Kentucky's other GOP senator, who is Ron Paul's son.
Benton and McConnell tried to make light of the episode, posting a couple of photos of themselves holding their noses, and Benton circulated a statement calling it "truly sick" that his private remark had been recorded. He said leading McConnell's campaign "is one of the great honors of my life."
Still, during the news-light August doldrums, Benton's gaffe counted as the biggest political story of the day. And it's exactly the kind of tinder that Bevin needs to ignite his campaign.
The political neophyte launched his bid late last month, and so far, he's yet to leave much of a mark. Outside groups such as the conservative Club For Growth have yet to endorse his candidacy despite holding no love for the longtime senator (the club has said only that it is watching Bevin's campaign). Rand Paul has endorsed McConnell, which should carry weight with the state's grassroots conservatives.
But Bevin got good reviews at Fancy Farm, a rough-and-tumble political event this month, and McConnell's campaign is treating him seriously—even running a hard-hitting attack ad that questioned his personal background. McConnell's wariness shouldn't surprise: Ever since Paul defeated his handpicked choice for Senate in the 2010 primary, McConnell has been considered vulnerable. He's worked hard since then to fortify his right flank, courting grassroots favorites such as Paul and Benton. For much of this year, it seemed the hard work would pay off and McConnell would avoid a strong GOP foe.
But Bevin entered the race, and now he has fresh ammunition for his uphill fight.
"Even Mitch McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, thinks something stinks with the Mitch McConnell campaign," Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand said. "His admission that he is 'holding (his) nose' for two years while he works for McConnell shows that even McConnell's top guy realizes that his boss is not a true conservative, and after nearly 30 years of voting for big-government and big-spending bills, does not deserve to be reelected. Fortunately, Kentucky voters have a real conservative in this race that all Republicans can be proud to support."
The bigger worry for McConnell might not be that he loses to Bevin, but that he's occupied with fighting off his conservative foe instead of focusing on Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state and the daughter of a former state party chairman. The fresh-faced 34-year-old is a top Democratic recruit for 2014, and early polls show an effective dead heat. McConnell remains the favorite, but his campaign depends on defining Grimes as an out-of-touch liberal. Every dollar spent attacking Bevin is one dollar less that could be used against her.
"Mitch McConnell is so unpopular in Kentucky that even his own campaign manager can't stand him," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Unfortunately for McConnell, polls show the people of Kentucky won't be holding their noses in 2014."
Recent political history should give McConnell some degree of comfort. The last presidential campaign was full of gaffes from both candidates. When Mitt Romney's adviser Eric Fehrnstrom suggested his candidate would "Etch A Sketch" away his prior positions, it dominated headlines for days. When President Obama said in a speech, "You didn't build that," a reference to government-funded infrastructure that helps private business create jobs, Republicans devoted a full night of their national convention to the remark. Both were supposed to fundamentally alter the campaign; neither did. (Romney's "47 percent" speech did matter, but it was a whole different order of magnitude than most routine gaffes).
"I don't think at end of day, this is a particularly consequential problem for Mitch McConnell," said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist. "If I thought Mitch McConnell was lazy, it would be a different case. But I know Mitch McConnell isn't lazy. And if I thought he wasn't willing to go negative and hit somebody, it'd be a different case. But I know he will."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement issued by Sarah Durand, a spokeswoman for the Bevin campaign.
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This article appears in the August 12, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.