With just nine weeks until Election Day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) campaign manager felt compelled to resign late last week. Jesse Benton was accused of possibly playing a role in a bribery scandal during the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses when he was a top official on Ron Paul’s team.
A criminal investigation into the 2012 incident is ongoing, forcing Benton to step down from Team McConnell, saying he didn’t want to be a “distraction.” But five days after the unexpected resignation announcement, it’s clearly become a distraction anyway.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined Tuesday to discuss the resignation of his former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, who quit last week as questions swirled about his role in a federal bribery case in Iowa.McConnell and his camp had reportedly avoided questions about the issue over the weekend, but McConnell stopped to talk with reporters Tuesday afternoon after a speech to the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce.
The senator refused to go into any details about what he knew about Benton’s 2012 work. Rather, McConnell told reporters, “Yeah, we’re moving on…. We’re talking about the future and not the past…. We’re moving on…. I think it is time to move on.”
When one Kentucky reporter asked a McConnell spokesperson to speak on the record about the campaign manager’s resignation, she hung up rather than comment.
That said, behind the scenes, Team McConnell has come up with a new pitch.
David Drucker was one of several in the media to hear that Benton may have been McConnell’s campaign manager, but he wasn’t especially important to the McConnell campaign.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former campaign manager had not actively run the campaign for months before his resignation last week, Republican sources said. […][T]wo Republican operatives close to the campaign said his work was already done at that point. McConnell had hired Benton to fend off well-funded Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin in the May 20 primary, which McConnell won easily.
As the story goes, after the primary, the “political and day-to-day leadership of the operation” shifted away from Benton’s office and towards Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former Senate chief of staff.
I can’t speak to the veracity of the claim, but on the surface, it’s an odd argument. As Joe Sonka put it, if Benton wasn’t actively running the McConnell campaign, despite his title, “one has to ask why McConnell’s campaign committees and the Republican Party of Kentucky have paid Benton a salary of $458,000 for his work as campaign manager. In other words, explaining that you paid someone an extraordinary amount for a job that wasn’t very important is difficult when the person in question is at the center of a scandal where someone was bribed by a campaign for political support.”
It seemed to me that when Benton resigned – late on a Friday afternoon, on a holiday weekend, apparently hoping to bury the news – there was an obvious way for McConnell’s team to handle this. “We understand there’s an ongoing investigation, which has nothing to do with the senator or his campaign,” I assumed they’d say. “We have no idea what Jesse did or didn’t do two years ago in another state, but we wish him well in the future.”
But for reasons that are not yet clear, Team McConnell didn’t follow this course, choosing instead to dodge reasonable questions with clumsy answers, while leaking word that McConnell’s well-paid campaign manager wasn’t really managing the campaign.
It’s enough to make this “distraction” linger a bit longer.