‘Nosegate’ Is Good News for Mitch McConnell’s Tea-Party Challenger

Matt Bevin could benefit from Team Mitch campaign manager’s private confession.

Posted 8/8/13 on the Team Mitch Facebook page with the caption "Nothing smells worse than "ª#"ŽObamacare"¬! "ª#"ŽNoseGate"¬"
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Aug. 9, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4382) }}

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