"Between you and me, I'm sorta holdin' my nose for two years," Benton says on the recording, which was posted Thursday at the Economic Policy Journal. He said he hoped what he was doing would be "a big benefit to Rand in '16. That's my long vision." It was a reference to a potential 2016 presidential run by Rand Paul, Kentucky's other GOP senator, who is Ron Paul's son.
Benton and McConnell tried to make light of the episode, posting a couple of photos of themselves holding their noses, and Benton circulated a statement calling it "truly sick" that his private remark had been recorded. He said leading McConnell's campaign "is one of the great honors of my life."
Still, during the news-light August doldrums, Benton's gaffe counted as the biggest political story of the day. And it's exactly the kind of tinder that Bevin needs to ignite his campaign.
The political neophyte launched his bid late last month, and so far, he's yet to leave much of a mark. Outside groups such as the conservative Club For Growth have yet to endorse his candidacy despite holding no love for the longtime senator (the club has said only that it is watching Bevin's campaign). Rand Paul has endorsed McConnell, which should carry weight with the state's grassroots conservatives.
But Bevin got good reviews at Fancy Farm, a rough-and-tumble political event this month, and McConnell's campaign is treating him seriously — even running a hard-hitting attack ad that questioned his personal background. McConnell's wariness shouldn't surprise: Ever since Paul defeated his handpicked choice for Senate in the 2010 primary, McConnell has been considered vulnerable. He's worked hard since then to fortify his right flank, courting grassroots favorites such as Paul and Benton. For much of this year, it seemed the hard work would pay off and McConnell would avoid a strong GOP foe.
But Bevin entered the race, and now he has fresh ammunition for his uphill fight.
"Even Mitch McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, thinks something stinks with the Mitch McConnell campaign," Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand said. "His 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. Fortunately, Kentucky voters have a real conservative in this race that all Republicans can be proud to support."
The bigger worry for McConnell might not be that he loses to Bevin, but that he's occupied with fighting off his conservative foe instead of focusing on Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state and the daughter of a former state party chairman. The fresh-faced 34-year-old is a top Democratic recruit for 2014, and early polls show an effective dead heat. McConnell remains the favorite, but his campaign depends on defining Grimes as an out-of-touch liberal. Every dollar spent attacking Bevin is one dollar less that could be used against her.