The political world around the Pauls—retired Republican congressman Ron Paul and his son, sitting Kentucky senator Rand Paul—was roiled by mini-scandals last week.
Treated as most consequential by national media was, naturally, the one that touched on the senior Kentucky senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Last September, McConnell hired Jesse Benton, a former campaign higher-up for both Pauls, to run his 2014 re-election campaign. (Benton is also married to Valerie Pyeatt, Ron Paul’s granddaughter and Rand’s niece.)
Benton made national news last week when a former Paul campaign worker, Dennis Fusaro, leaked a tape to the press. In the recording, Benton told Fusaro that he was working for McConnell because of the job’s possibilities to help Rand Paul. What’s more, Benton said he was “holding my nose” while doing it.
A staffer lacking sincere love for his boss’ politics isn’t the most shocking political scandal. And as one Republican who works for libertarian causes within the party put it, “Jesse isn’t known for being very circumspect about what he says.”
Still, Benton quickly issued a stern restatement of his dedication to his boss: “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. 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."
McConnell’s office took the story lightly, releasing an image of Benton and McConnell together, each holding their nose and smiling.
This was likely intended to imply “Who cares? We aren’t taking this seriously.” Read more cynically, it could also be a sign that McConnell considers Benton as much a means to an end as Benton sees McConnell. That end, many watchers of both Paulian and Kentucky politics have long believed, was to bring some Paul mojo to a senator far from beloved by the Tea Party end of the Republican Party, and thus to prevent a primary challenge to McConnell.
That didn’t work. First-time candidate Matt Bevin, a businessman involved in both asset management and bell manufacture, is running hard against McConnell from the Tea Party right. Bevin tells Kentucky crowds that he wants Kentucky to be a place for people to “expand” and “improve” their lives, that he opposes McConnell because of immigration amnesty, big bank bailouts, pay raises, and failing to defund ObamaCare, and that he blames the senior senator for failing to create more jobs in Kentucky. Not the most ringingly pro-liberty message, but it gets crowds riled.
“Mitch has never had to explain himself with specificity to GOP primary voters, and I feel quite sure as he has to this time that he will be found lacking,” says Dave Adams, who ran Rand Paul’s primary campaign in 2010. (A campaign in which, as McConnell detractors in the Paul world can’t resist pointing out, McConnell was firmly opposed to Paul.) “There’s ample opportunity for an opponent to separate [McConnell] from the constitutionalist base, and this opponent in particular has proven solid effectiveness in doing that,” Adams adds. McConnell has disappointed liberty-minded Kentuckians, Adams argues, with “votes for debt-laden budgets” and “voting to take away civil liberties, being an advocate for things like the PATRIOT Act.” National reporters and analysts hanging out in Kentucky also see Bevin’s challenge as substantial and potentially fatal to McConnell. The incumbent has barely majority approval ratings from Kentucky Republicans, and huge negatives from independents and Democrats.
Bevin jumped on Benton’s comment, with a campaign spokeswoman saying Benton’s jibe “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.” McConnell, meanwhile, is stressing the potential importance to his state of having a possible majority leader as its representative. (“He doesn’t have anything else,” Adams says). McConnell has released a video that presents Bevin as a bad party man—why, he is known to have voted for the Constitution Party rather than George W. Bush in 2004. This may not be effective for those who see themselves dedicated more to conservative principles than Republican candidates.
This puts Rand Paul in a bit of a bind. Paul has endorsed McConnell but so far has avoided bashing Bevin. Bevin ain’t mad at Rand Paul, according to a U.S. News and World Report article. “I like how he votes, I like what he stands for as a conservative, he's a true conservative who actually votes as he talks and actually takes action; those things I admire in him,” he told them. “But Rand has, I think, other things on his on his potential horizon and he's trying to be as strategic as he can be in making decisions that are in those interests."
In other words, Rand Paul may run for president in 2016—and if he doesn't, he'll still have a reelection race to think of. Benton said more on that topic to a local Kentucky TV station WHAS-11, suggesting that the political machine behind McConnell’s 2014 race could straight-up “fuse” with Paul’s 2016 campaign team.
Benton told WHAS-11 that while he can’t say whether McConnell might directly endorse Paul for president, “I know that Sen. McConnell is very comfortable putting his hand on Rand's shoulder and telling all the 'intelligentsia' and the talking heads and the insiders who are very, very important in a presidential campaign that Rand is a real true serious player in the presidential race.”
That’s a direct statement of the thinking of those on the Paul side who thought something good would come from Benton moving to McConnell. This holds whether or not any voter cares what political operatives he hires—and given Benton’s troubled relationship with elements of the Paul grassroots, it never made a lot of sense to believe that Benton in and of himself could deliver any of that Paul mojo.
McConnell has managed as a politician to do and say some semi-substantive things designed to make liberty movement types less annoyed with him. He voted for Paul's super-budget-cutting plan and his measure to cut off aid to Egypt, joined him in backing hemp legalization and auditing the Fed, supported Paul's drone filibuster, and says he'll at least consider some military cuts.
The Benton nose-holding scandal arose as a byproduct of another scandal that’s gotten far less national attention: accusations that in 2012 people close to the Ron Paul campaign paid off Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson to publicly abandon his support for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential run. Sorenson had previously been accused of being paid to support Bachmann, which would violate Iowa Senate ethics rules, and he is now the subject of an ongoing ethics investigation over that. A writer in the Des Moines Register has tried to weigh down the Paul-connected current state party leadership with accusations of perfidy against Sorenson.
Sorenson did defect from Bachmann to Paul in January 2012, shortly before the Iowa caucus vote. Iowa sources both within and without the Paul campaign told me that the move was doubly, perhaps triply, unfortunate: Sorenson’s word didn’t carry that much vote-swaying weight, many Iowans found such machinations distasteful (even when they didn’t know money might have changed hands), and in the end by dinging Bachmann, to the extent the defection added to a general sense of “let’s jump ship” from her, the defection might well have elevated the previously nowheresville Rick Santorum who ended up beating Paul in the beauty contest vote (though Paul won the Iowa delegation at the end of the caucus process).
How the Sorenson revelations will play out locally is uncertain. Sorenson and Fusaro both say they are certain Ron Paul himself thought he was telling the truth when he said that there had been no payoff to Sorenson. Sources within the Iowa liberty movement see the Iowa Republican, where most of these stories were leaked, as deliberately opposed to the Pauls and their allies. The Iowa Republican worries not so much that this scandal (which Rachel Maddow has been hitting hard) may besmirch the Paul machine as it might besmirch Iowa’s reputation as a fair and trustworthy broker of early presidential aspirants. But longtime Paul campaign watchers in Iowa are convinced none of this will harm the solid position Rand Paul holds in Iowa.
Gaffes and political operative machinations fascinate the media whose job is to follow this stuff obsessively. Voters care a lot less. Whether Mitch McConnell defeats Matt Bevin—and whether Rand Paul gains or loses from his alliance with McConnell—will have a lot more to do with voters' impressions of their positions and effectiveness than the backgrounds or shenanigans of operatives surrounding them.
That’s why the Rand Paul news likely to have more legs is his role as a senatorial lead in giving legislative weight to the Obama administration’s groundbreaking announcement this week that they intend to start making end runs around mandatory minimum drug sentences.
Rand Paul remains a surprisingly serious contender for national glory in 2016, and those who are said to be challenging his position in Iowa or nationally, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have little that he lacks in terms of free-market conservative beliefs and record, an ability to appeal to evangelicals, and to walk a fine non-interventionist line designed to not shock or appall standard GOP primary voters while selling a less active foreign policy as sensible, constitutional, and prudent. Paul’s fundraising possibilities, says Dave Nalle, South Central regional director for the Republican Liberty Caucus, will likely exceed his father’s, thanks to the greater sense going into 2016 that donors big and small would feel “they’d be investing in something salable and not throwing good money after bad.”
Because of Paul’s demonstrated ability to lead on important issues, work with the other major party when it’s appropriate to his goals, and be an effective mover of the liberty agenda, he is unlikely to be hobbled by gaffes, past indiscretions, or even crimes on the part of operatives surrounding either him or his father’s past campaigns.