Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton stepped down late Friday as a federal bribery investigation of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential run expands.
In a released statement, Benton, who ran Paul’s presidential campaign, said he met with McConnell on Friday afternoon and resigned in order to avoid further distractions in Kentucky’s tightly-contested Senate race.
Federal court documents made public in the bribery investigation do not mention Benton, but a November 2011 email exchange shows he played a direct role in recruiting the legislator, former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, to drop his support of Congressman Michelle Bachman for Paul.
As the Washington Post reported this week, Sorenson pleaded guilty in a plea deal with prosecutors. And prosecutors appear to be looking at former Paul campaign staffers.
Benton maintained his innocence in the statement, but said the campaign’s fight against Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes is too important.
“I hope those who know me recognize that I strive to be a man of integrity,” he said. “The press accounts and rumors are particularly hurtful because they are false. However, what is most troubling to me is that they risk unfairly undermining and becoming a distraction to this reelection campaign.”
Benton was first recruited two years ago to run McConnell’s re-election campaign in what many saw as a shrewd attempt by the GOP leader to placate the state’s Tea Party vote.
It was also a sign of how important McConnell’s alliance with fellow Sen. Rand Paul was to his re-election effort. Benton is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter and is Rand Paul’s nephew, and he was expected to play an important role in the younger Paul’s probable 2016 president bid.
There had been high hopes about Benton’s future as someone who could unite GOP voters. Earlier this year, McConnell campaign senior adviser Josh Holmes, who had been assuming a larger role in the election as of late, looked at Benton as a potential RNC chairman.
“There is a definite need for operatives who have the ability and interest to unite conservatives,” Holmes told The Daily Beast in March. “Jesse has that capability. I don’t know whether it is a party chairman someday or volunteering at his kid’s school-board meeting, but he will always be working to improve his community and he’s willing to take the arrows to actually accomplish it.”
But Benton came under fire as the head of Team Mitch last year for saying he was “holding his nose” working for McConnell in a secretly record telephone conversation with a former Paul campaign aide.
Benton took a different tone about his relationship with the senator in his resignation statement.
“Working for Mitch McConnell is one of the great honors of my life,” he said. “He is a friend, a mentor and a great man this commonwealth desperately needs. I cannot, and will not, allow any possibility that my circumstances will effect the voters’ ability to hear his message and assess his record. This election is far too important and the stakes way too high.”
According to campaign finance filings Benton has been paid just over $425,000 through July 2014 by the McConnell’s campaign and leadership PAC.
In his guilty plea in Iowa, Sorenson said the Ron Paul campaign paid his wife with $25,000 check, which wasn’t cashed. Sorenson also said the campaign paid him through monthly installments that totaled $73,000 hidden in FEC records.
In another taped telephone call with a former Paul campaign aide made public last August, Sorenson said Benton was fully aware of the payments.
“Oh, I know Jesse knows,” he said. “I know Jesse knows.”
An aide for Grimes took an early jab at the news of McConnell’s manager stepping down less than 100 days before voters go to the polls, saying on Twitter that it proves the GOP leader is “having the worst week.”
Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton said Benton’s departure is not the end of this story for McConnell, and he owes voters an explanation.
“Senator McConnell owes the people of Kentucky a full account of what he knew and when he knew it,” she said.