‘Nosegate’ Puts McConnell Campaign Manager Jesse Benton Under Fire

Mitch McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager is under fire this week after a series of reports, including an alleged taped phone conversation that casts doubts on his commitment to Senate Republican leader.

The Economic Policy Journal has published a telephone conversation between Dennis Fusaro, a former aide to Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager.

Benton served as the Paul campaign’s political director in 2012, in which Benton characterized working for McConnell in a less than flattering light.

Benton said he was “sort of holding my nose for two years because what we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit for Rand in 2016,” according to the posted audio of the Jan. 9, 2013 conversation with Fusaro. “That’s my long vision.”

The news—increasingly referred to as “#nosegate” on Twitter—is spreading across social media and is providing ample fodder for the campaign of Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, McConnell’s Republican primary challenger.

Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand said in an email blast released Thursday afternoon that even Benton “thinks something stinks with the Mitch McConnell campaign.”

“[Benton’s] 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,” Durand said. “Fortunately, Kentucky voters have a real conservative in this race that all Republicans can be proud to support—Matt Bevin.”

The Madison Project, an upstart conservative Super PAC that has thrown its weight behind Bevin, took the opportunity to link “nosegate” with “discord within the Republican Party.”

“Conservatives are sick of holding their noses to vote for the ‘lesser of two evils’ every election year,” said Daniel Horowitz, policy director for The Madison Project, in a statement. “They are sick of settling for unprincipled leadership. Fortunately, Kentuckians have the opportunity to breathe easy and vote for a fresh breath of air in Matt Bevin.”

Today’s developments follow other potentially damning disclosures regarding illicit dealings between Republican Iowa State Sen. Kent Sorenson and other members of Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign regarding the trade of political support for financial remuneration during the 2011 Iowa Caucuses.

Opensecrets published a series of emails released by Fusaro Wednesday dating from late 2011 that chronicle dealings between members of Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and Iowa Republican state Sen. Kent Sorenson. Fusaro was a top aide to Paul during his 2008 presidential bid, and was copied on the e-mails.

One exchange from late 2011 between Aaron Dorr, executive director of Iowa Gun Owners, and John Tate, Paul’s 2012 campaign manager, said Sorenson would switch allegiances from Rep. Michele Bachmann’s campaign, endorse Paul and actively campaign on his behalf in exchange for financial compensation from the Paul campaign—to the tune of $8,000 per month for Sorenson personally in addition to $5,000 per month for an ally of Sorenson’s and $100,000 funneled into a PAC created by the state senator to field conservative candidates in the Hawkeye State.

From OpenSecrets:

In a second email chain Fusaro provided, Benton emails Dorr on Nov. 14, writing that, “with those meetings in the rear-view mirror, I though(sic) now might be a good time to revisit Kent and your brother joining our team.”

On Nov. 21, Dorr replied to Benton and Tate that he was going to step out of the negotiations because Dimitri Kesari, a Ron Paul staffer, had gone to Sorenson’s house for dinner.

“As I’m no longer needed to facilitate a conversation at this point, I’ll bow out and let you, John, Dimitri and Kent work this out,” Dorr wrote.

A story published by The Iowa Republican blog on Aug. 7 explores Benton’s involvement in the dealings between Sorenson and Paul’s campaign. After Sorenson dropped his support for Bachmann, the state senator confirmed to Fusaro in a phone call that Benton was aware that the Paul campaign’s deputy national campaign director, Demitri Kesari—an Iowa jewelry store owner— presented a check to Sorenson’s wife while dining at a local restaurant. 

According to the Iowa Republican website,  Sorenson said Benton knew about the exchange.

“Oh, I know Jesse knows,” he was quoted as saying. “I know Jesse knows.”

In an email to The Weekly Standard, Benton condemned the release of the conversation.

“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 re-election. 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.”

On Thursday afternoon, Fusaro told Buzzfeed that he recorded Benton to protect himself “when [Benton] would say I was lying.” 

(Related: Noise & Notes interview with Jesse Benton from February)

Sources familiar with the campaign say that they’re sticking by Benton, who is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter, and that Team Mitch is bolstering the ranks of its communications staff.

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