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'It was just so dumb,' McConnell campaign head refutes taped comment

by Joe Arnold


Posted on August 9, 2013 at 9:14 PM

Updated Monday, Aug 12 at 11:47 AM

LOUISVILLE, Ky (WHAS11) -- Campaign manager Jesse Benton said Friday he does not agree with what he told a political activist in January, that he was "sort of holding my nose for two years" as he manages Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign.

The secretly recorded phone conversation was released on a political website late Wednesday.

"It was just such a stupid thing to say," Benton told WHAS11 News.  "I'm not sure quite why I said it. (I was) talking to a hard core Ron Paul supporter that - I guess they don't quite understand what we're trying to build here."

"It was just so dumb," Benton continued.  "I don't feel that way at all.  Being asked to manage Senator McConnell's campaign is one of the great honors of my life and I believe in the man very much."

Benton acknowledged the controversy could damage the campaign which is fostering a carefully built alliance with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) and tea party groups.

Benton was Rand Paul's 2010 campaign manager and Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign manager, and now has to convince tea party supporters that his support of the five term incumbent McConnell is equally sincere.

But first, he had to talk to McConnell.

"It's one of the hardest conversations I've ever had," Benton said.

"He wasn't angry, he wasn't upset, but I could see the hurt in his eyes," Benton continued.  "He asked me how I could say something like that, and I just didn't have a good answer.  I apologized from the bottom of my heart and I told him it's not what I believe and that I am here because I believe in him."

McConnell's campaign attempted to mute the controversy Thursday - releasing photos of Benton and McConnell holding their noses -- saying "Nothing smells worse than Obamacare."

"It was a little group decision," Benton said of the photos.  "I think we were trying to have some fun and crack a smile on what was a tough day.  And, quite frankly, I think it was Mitch wanting to show that he was standing behind me."

McConnell is facing challenges from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes on the left and Republican Matt Bevin on the right. Benton said he did not expect yet is now braced for personal attacks on him.

"There is a huge microscope on us," Benton said.  "We're a constant target. And that's what Mitch told me yesterday. He told me we've got to be ready for even more of this stuff."

"I would personally never go after another staffer, but some of the folks that are against us apparently don't hold themselves to the same standard," Benton added.

The campaign of McConnell's Republican primary challenger pounced on the release of the recording.

"Even Mitch McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, thinks something stinks with the Mitch McConnell campaign," said Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand.

"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," Durand's statement continued.  "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--Matt Bevin."
Benton was upset by the Bevin campaign's comments.

"I thought it was a little off-putting that people who professed to be Republicans and conservatives seem to just jump on my difficult situation with such glee," Benton told WHAS11.  "It was very off-putting and I don't think speaks very highly of them and what they're trying to do."

"I think what we've built is too strong to be undone by one stupid comment," Benton said.

Benton verified that the recording by Dennis Fusaro on January 9, 2013 accurately captured his comments.  The bulk of the conversation centers on Fusaro's allegation that the Ron Paul campaign paid an Iowa State Senator $30,000 to switch his endorsement from Michelle Bachman to Ron Paul.

On both the call and in the WHAS11 interview, Benton denied knowing about any such payment.

Benton told WHAS11 that Fusaro never mailed him the promised documents as promised.

"No, he sure didn't," Benton said.  "And as far as I'm concerned, I wish he would.  As far as I'm concerned, that chapter is closed.  I don't have any ill will toward Mr. Fasaro but I do know him to be a very troubled man."

"I was speaking to him out of kindness hoping that he was getting his life together and apparently he just hasn't," Benton said. 

"To have what you thought was a private, off the cuff conversation recorded, it felt like such a violation," Benton said.  "To be stuck on the Internet like that, someone doing it just to try to personally hurt me is very difficult."

"And then to see that it hurt Sen McConnell, and that it could have some negative impact on what we're trying to build here which I think is so important and so crucial, it was a tough day," Benton said.

Benton is married to Ron Paul's grand-daughter, Rand Paul's niece.

Benton said  McConnell's support and vouching for Rand Paul is important for Paul's presidential aspirations and he hopes that a substantial part of McConnell's campaign operation will join Paul's campaign.