The Kentucky Senate race has taken a turn for the whodunit.
A newly published, secret recording of Mitch McConnell and a handful of staffers reviewing sensitive opposition research on potential opponent Ashley Judd, the movie-star Democrat who has since passed on a campaign, raises two obvious, possible explanations of its origin. The first, as suggested by McConnell and his staff, is that a still-unknown Democrat illegally bugged the private meeting.
The second, more embarrassing possibility for McConnell: One of the meeting's participants, a staffer of his, leaked the recording to the liberal Mother Jones.
As of Tuesday, there was scant evidence for either scenario. But if either turned out to be true, it would carry significant consequences for the Senate minority leader's campaign, a race Democrats already consider their top midterm target. Misconduct by Democrats — or wrongful accusations from McConnell — could shake up an already volatile race.
The FBI is investigating the origins of the secret recording, according to officials with McConnell's campaign, who allege it's a left-wing, Nixon-esque plot against the GOP leader. McConnell himself accused Progress Kentucky, a Democratic super PAC that is working to defeat him.
"We've always said the Left would stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell, but Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters are above and beyond," said Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager.
"Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Senator McConnell's campaign office without consent," he added. "By whom and how that was accomplished presumably will be the subject of a criminal investigation."
The DSCC, meanwhile, shot back at McConnell, saying the senator was simply trying to play the victim. McConnell and his staff, DSCC executive director Guy Cecil said, should apologize for mentioning Judd's history of depression during the private conversation.
"Mitch McConnell is desperate to play the victim," Cecil said. "The DSCC doesn't know if this tape came from a disgruntled Senate staffer who was forced to dig up dirt on their boss' potential opponents or another source, but its content is a clear example of how Mitch McConnell is the living, breathing embodiment of everything that is wrong with Washington. It is beneath the office of Minority Leader to engage in this kind of trivial politics. He should apologize to the millions of Americans who suffer from depression and don't believe it's a laughing matter."
This isn't the first time one of McConnell's races has been plagued by a secret recording. In 2008, when the senior senator was fending off a stiff challenge from Democrat Bruce Lunsford, a staffer with the National Republican Senatorial Committee planted a recording device at Lunsford's podium before a debate.
Thus far, the campaign hasn't provided evidence to support its claim that Democrats were behind the latest surreptitious act. In a statement provided to Politico, Mother Jones said the tape had been provided by a source.
But it also vehemently denies anyone present during the original meeting could have leaked the recording. It's unclear how many people were present — only a few voices can be heard during the recording. An official with McConnell's campaign said everyone present was a close ally of the senator.
"It was a very small meeting of senior staff and longtime loyalists — a "˜family meeting' if you will," the official said. "No one in that room would have "˜leaked' anything."
So far, Republicans have banked hard on their belief that the recording was done by an outside Democratic group. McConnell's campaign has begun raising money off the accusations, tweeting that the "liberal left is exposed for illegally wiretapping out campaign HQ" while providing a link to a sign-up with the campaign.
And Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chairman for the NRSC, issued a statement calling on an array of Democratic groups — such as the DNC, DSCC, Think Progress, and Organizing for Action — to denounce using any such tactics.
"This "˜anything to win: laws and rules be damned' mentality has to stop," Moran said. "I hope that leaders [Harry] Reid and [Chuck] Schumer will join me in condemning these tactics."
The GOP's aggressive response to the news speaks to the sensitivity of McConnell's race. The senator, seeking his sixth term in office, is considered vulnerable to a challenge on his right during a Republican primary (though no potential candidate has emerged) and in a general election.
Judd's decision not to run, in fact, likely helped Democratic chances in the Bluegrass State if it entices Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, considered a far stronger candidate, to start a campaign. Publicly, Grimes has been undecided about running, but if she enters, Democrats are confident they have a legitimate shot at knocking off McConnell.
"The polling is crystal clear: Mitch McConnell is the least popular incumbent in the entire country," said Matt Canter, DSCC spokesman. "He is a living, breathing symbol for everything that is wrong with Washington."
CLARIFICATION: The Mother Jones recording was an audio recording, not a video.