If you had to choose a moment that perfectly sums up Mitch McConnell’s troubled re-election campaign so far, it’s tempting to pick the image of Mitch and his now-resigned campaign manager, Jesse Benton, holding their noses, trying to laugh at their strange entanglement.
That photo, taken in the hours after a secret recording of Benton surfaced in which he said he was “holding’ his nose” while running McConnell’s campaign, represents a deeper truth about Mitch McConnell’s pursuit of a sixth term in the U.S. Senate.
McConnell had suffered a Nixonian moment of overwhelming paranoia. He sought out Jesse Benton to stave off a Tea Party primary challenge in a state where no Tea Partier in their right mind was likely to challenge him. Benton’s credentials for the job seemed suspect, but McConnell either did not notice or did not care. He believed Jesse – a Rand Paul insider who’d run Ron Paul’s gloriously failed 2012 Presidential campaign — would guide him through the choppy seas of a GOP civil war and deliver him back to the Senate as Majority Leader. It was a classic Mitch calculation, the Politics of Personal Ambition will always trump everything else — party, voters, constituents, the country.
Jesse Benton’s job was to strong-arm, cajole or otherwise convince conservative leaders both local and national that McConnell was, finally, on their side. The message was simple: A new Mitch, 2014 Mitch, was the straddle between Tea Party and Establishment. It’s a farcical notion, but then, look at the messengers.
When that recording came out, it shocked some that Benton survived. He was holding his nose to run McConnell’s campaign, the RINO stench just too strong. The joke of the photo is that Mitch was holding his nose, too. McConnell’s Nixonian paranoia had convinced him that he did still need Jesse Benton. Mitch had set himself a trap and now he was caught in it and he did nothing.
But that incident — #NoseGate as it immediately came to be known — is not quite so telling as another nose incident which would unfold just three months later.
On October 30th, 2013, the powerful Republican Super PAC American Crossroads held a fundraising call with its shrouded flock of dark money donors. Hosting the call were the group’s founder, Karl Rove, and the group’s head, Stephen J. Law. Also leading the call was Mitch McConnell.
American Crossroads has raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the last three election cycles. They pump that money into races across the country, often via allied local groups like Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition. They are prohibited by law from coordinating with official campaigns.
The fact that Mitch McConnell would headline an American Crossroads fundraising call alongside Karl Rove and Stephen Law (a longtime McConnell aide and ally) is remarkable not only for how it highlights the inanity of the campaign finance laws Mitch McConnell has helped destroy and construct but also for what Mitch McConnell said on the call.
In comments reported first by Breitbart.com and later confirmed by the conservative Washington Examiner (here, here, here), Mitch McConnell bashed the Tea Party movement in general with a specific focus on two Tea Party Senators, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz. In the main thrust of his call with the American Crossroads superfunders, McConnell lashed out at the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that was backing his primary opponent Matt Bevin. McConnell, according to both Breitbart and the Examiner, called them “nothing but a bunch of schoolyard bullies” and promised that he, Mitch McConnell, would “punch them in the nose.”
“And he said ‘you know how you deal with schoolyard bullies? You punch them in the nose and that’s what we’re going to do.’”
At the beginning of August 2013, Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager and Tea Party outreacher-in-chief was caught on tape saying that he was “holding his nose” while running Mitch’s re-election race. By the end of October, Mitch McConnell was on tape threatening one of the leading conservative forces, telling establishment Republican donors that he’d “punch them in the nose.”
Jesse Benton’s #NoseGate raises real and legitimate questions about the tactics, activities and judgment of the McConnell campaign at large and Mitch McConnell specifically, but McConnell’s October “punch ‘em in the nose” moment on a call with Karl Rove, Stephen Law and American Crossroads is the more perfect image of a campaign awash in dysfunction, if not corruption.
News of that call enraged Tea Party groups around the country and in Kentucky — threatening to undo much of what McConnell and Benton had tried to “accomplish” throughout the first ten months of 2013.
In May of 2013, around the same time Benton’s Ron Paul 2012 deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari was under contract with the McConnell campaign, a series of national Tea Party groups announced early and preemptive endorsements of Mitch McConnell. These endorsements – The Tea Party News Network, Tea Party Leadership PAC, and Judson Phillips’ Tea Party Nation — created an appearance of support for the McConnell campaign among the conservative grassroots.
Appearances can be deceiving. Why the two groups endorsed McConnell at the time they did is one question. In the month after their endorsement, The Tea Party Leadership PAC funneled individual contributions given by Tea Partiers across the nation into a separate group which then gave those grassroots donations to Mitch McConnell (see here); the head of that group was the lead lawyer in the McCutcheon campaign finance case that McConnell helped argue before the Supreme Court. The endorsements came at the same time Kentucky’s own Tea Party Network was ramping up its efforts to locate a viable candidate. Among the leading choices were John Kemper and Matt Bevin — and Bevin would end up in the race. The Kentucky Tea Party network had been mulling a Primary challenge for months, their disdain for McConnell growing even as Benton and Team Mitch worked feverishly to ameliorate them.
In July of 2013, right before Matt Bevin entered the race, CN|2 reported that the “United Kentucky Tea Party, a coalition of 14 tea party groups from around the state, issued an open letter to Tea Party.net and Tea Party Nation chastising them for ‘your lack of research and poor judgement’ in backing McConnell.”
That letter came the same day that Mitch McConnell was in Washington DC to host the Tea Party.net activists in an effort to cement the appearance of Tea Party support for his campaign.
McConnell even booked the room for the group, said Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager.
“We’re proud of our friendship with them. They’re doing some wonderful work,” Benton said of Tea Party.net. McConnell “is a conservative too. He helps as a conduit. He helps as a, quote, ‘moderate Republican’ to deliver the message that they share a lot of beliefs.”
Benton, who ran U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign in 2010, said he has been reaching out to activists at tea party meetings across the state and that McConnell has strong support among many of them.
To the media, Benton was putting on a happy face. Mitch was a friend to the conservative movement, he shares a lot of their beliefs — and Benton was peddling this message, or some derivation thereof — across the state of Kentucky, but not with much luck.
From start to finish, the organized Tea Party groups of Kentucky stayed pretty solidly opposed to the McConnell campaign. After McConnell’s fundraising “Punch ‘em in the Nose” call with Karl Rove, Stephen Law and American Crossroads, the Kentucky Tea Party groups were even more enraged. In fact, the incident even put a crack in the McConnell/Benton national outreach. In the wake of McConnell’s “Punch ‘em in the Nose” comment on that fundraising call, one of the national Tea Party groups, Judson Phillps’ Tea Party Nation, that had endorsed his campaign pulled their endorsement and blasted McConnell.
It’s not yet entirely clear why certain national conservative groups acted as they did in the months leading up to McConnell’s “Punch ‘em in the Nose” phone call with Rove and American Crossroads, or why they acted as they did in the months after. It is possible that a series of public moves by McConnell after Benton came on board were enough to cajole the TeaParty.Net folks and Tea Party Nation into supporting, for a time, McConnell’s campaign. It is also possible, given what has apparently transpired in Iowa, that something more was necessary to gain that support. (There are similar questions about the Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth, both of which supported Tea Party challengers in other high profile races but, for some reason, sat out the Kentucky one).
Inside Kentucky, the landscape seems at least a bit more clear. If you look at the Iowa caucuses for example, you see a series of GOP Presidential campaigns of varying Right Wing ideologies trying to shore up the support of, let’s say, State Senators with whom they maybe don’t have a long pre-existing relationship. For Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, that’s less of an issue.
The Bluegrass Committee is Mitch McConnell’s “Leadership PAC,” another way for Republican donors to funnel money to Mitch and which Mitch can then dole out to his political allies. McConnell has used the Bluegrass Committee over the years to take control of the state’s Republican Party and his stewardship of Republican State Senators and State Reps makes his political power throughout the Commonwealth formidable. By April 1st of last year McConnell had wrapped up endorsements from 64 of the 68 Republicans in the State Legislature — and as Jesse Benton himself said, these lawmakers were the foot soldiers in the McConnell campaign operation.
The McConnell campaign announced the endorsements on Monday from 64 of Kentucky’s 68 Republicans serving in the Legislature.
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said the lawmakers will help establish a campaign operation covering all 120 Kentucky counties. Their endorsements, Benton said, shows that the Kentucky GOP is unified heading into next year’s Senate election.
As we noted here at B&P back in February of this year, McConnell’s Bluegrass Committee spent 2013 cementing McConnell’s support among state legislators — in the latter half of last year alone, the Bluegrass Committee paid out $1,000 checks to fifty-nine separate sitting state lawmakers.
In Iowa, Jesse Benton is caught up in an apparent scheme to buy an endorsement from a State Senator for an out-of-state politician. The simple fact of the Kentucky political landscape is that such a payment would be less necessary in the Bluegrass because the Bluegrass Committee’s been making those payments, legitimately, for years.
When one ponders how a similar pay-for-endorsement scheme might have played out in the Kentucky Senate race, one must consider that the parameters are different. In Iowa, Ron Paul’s campaign manager Jesse Benton is alleged to have known that his deputy campaign manager, Dimitri Kesari, had given a bribe check to a State Senator to secure his endorsement of Ron Paul.
In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s (now former) campaign manager Jesse Benton is known to have spent two years working hard across the state to bring prominent Tea Party forces into the McConnell fold — at the same time he was apparently hard at work doing the same on the national level. The McConnell campaign paid Benton over $425,000 in under two years for his work. They also paid over $70,000 to Hyllus Corp., an entity linked to Dimitri Kesari, for “strategy consulting” in just six months of 2013 — and $10,000 of that came directly from Mitch McConnell’s leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee.
What Mitch McConnell got for that money remains unclear. But outright bribes and law-breaking are not, of course, the only way the McConnell machine may have sought to control the narrative of Tea Party opposition within the state.
During the Primary, McConnell and American Crossroads waged a war against the Senate Conservatives Fund (“Punch ‘em in the Nose“), Freedom Works and other prominent national Tea Party groups. In light of what is alleged to have occurred in Iowa, it is fair to question why the groups that did endorse the McConnell campaign chose to do so. It is also curious why other very prominent national groups chose to remain silent in this battle — like the Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth.
The same question of “why so quiet” can extend to Kentucky as well. While the vast majority of Kentucky Republicans are already indebted to the McConnell campaign by way of the Bluegrass Committee or other means, others are not — and not everyone on the Tea Party Right chose a side.
Looking back at it, the Republican primary in the 32nd House District was something of an anomaly. There, the Tea Party’s 2011 Gubernatorial candidate Phil Moffett defeated Shellie May.
Shellie May had, until a month before she joined the race, been the head of the Jefferson County Republican Party, the largest county GOP committee in the state. She had name recognition and had outraised Moffett.
In 2011, Shellie May presented Mitch McConnell with a pot of gold for good luck at the JeffCo GOP dinner and McConnell delivered a speech promising to work with President Obama to solve the nation’s problems. (The day before, Joe Biden had praised McConnell for his work — it was a different time.)
For all their loud antics, when the voting was done on Election Day this May, the Tea Party in Kentucky failed almost across the board to win seats or affect outcomes. Bevin never got close to McConnell and even in the Northern Kentucky Tea Party stronghold, Tea Party candidates fizzled out.
The Tea Party’s most prominent victory in the 2014 Primaries was Phil Moffett in the 32nd House race. One of the leading voices within the state’s Tea Party, Moffett had assiduously refused to take a side in the contentious U.S. Senate race.
In late July 2013, as Bevin was entering the race and the state’s Tea Party was engaging in a public altercation with national Tea Party groups that had surprisingly endorsed McConnell, Moffett wrote a long meditative post on Facebook, the gist of which was that he was not ready to endorse either candidate in the race yet — but he was open to convincing:
Who am I going to endorse? I’m not going to do anything yet and it may end up that I not do it at all. I need to know more. We are blessed to have two well-qualified candidates with a lot to debate, discuss, and explain. Just the kind of stuff a political junkie like me looks forward to.
In early November, Phil Moffett announced he would be running for the 32nd District State House seat — against Shellie May, the former Jefferson County GOP chair, who had announced her candidacy the month before.
On February 5th of this year, as the U.S. Senate race was heating up, I contacted several candidates in Republican state legislative primaries to get their thoughts for a B&P post on the Bevin/McConnell race and to see whether they were taking sides. Moffett wrote back that he hadn’t been discussing the Senate race with anyone and was instead just focused on raising money:
As far as who is breaking for which candidate, I don’t know. I have not been talking to many people about the Senate race. Been focused on raising money and the more mundane tasks related to running my race.
Moffett stayed mum on the U.S. Senate race to the end, endorsing no one and generally avoiding the topic — despite the fact that the rest of the Kentucky Tea Party was up in arms over, among other things, Mitch McConnell’s “Punch ‘em in the Nose” comment.
In his 32nd District House race, Moffett was out raised and outspent by his establishment opponent, Shellie May.
For all Ms. May’s establishment credentials — if you look at the campaign contributions a few things stick out. Much more of May’s money comes in small contributions, $250 here, $100 there. She does have some big backers (like Papa John, for instance) but much of it is in smaller enumerations.
Moffett on the other hand has some curious heavy hitters — the most prominent of whom is Terry Forcht.
Terry Forcht is the head of the Forcht Group. He and his associates are among the heaviest funders of the state’s Republican Party. Forcht and his associates are among the top funders of Mitch McConnell’s campaign (and political career). In the 2011 Gubernatorial race, Forcht gave big to Moffett’s Republican opponent, the absurd candidacy of David Williams.
Forcht is also the banker for Karl Rove’s American Crossroads group. When Karl Rove set up American Crossroads back in 2010, he did so with the help of former RNC head Mike Duncan and McConnell’s longtime aide and ally Stpehen Law. Duncan, a Kentuckian, and Law, directed the funds for American Crossroads to the bank of his friend Terry Forcht. [see here]
On February 5th, 2014, Phil Moffett told me that he was not talking to people about the Senate race and that he was only focused on raising money.
I have not been talking to many people about the Senate race. Been focused on raising money and the more mundane tasks related to running my race.
Interestingly, just three days prior, Moffett received $6,000 in contributions from Terry Forcht and his associates. Moffett claims on February 5th to not be talking with people about the Senate race, and three days before received multiple large checks from one of the most powerful forces behind Mitch McConnell’s campaign and behind Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.
In fact, within days of announcing his candidacy for the 32nd District State House last November, Phil Moffett had already secured the support of McConnell’s allies at the Forcht Group.
Over the course of his primary campaign, Moffett raised $40,000, eight thousand less than his opponent. Of the forty thousand, $7,000 of it came from Moffett himself on May 6th. Looking at the $33,000 Moffett raised from individual donors, $6,000 of it came from Karl Rove’s banker and his direct associates.
Another $1,000 came from Catherine Bailey, a long time McConnell confidante. Bailey chaired McConnell’s 2008 campaign and her husband, Irving, is on McConnell’s 2014 campaign committee.
Moffett got an additional $1,000 from Kentucky RISE PAC. Ms. Bailey is the chair of Kentucky RISE PAC and is one of the group’s chief donors, along side Terry Forcht.
Other prominent and heavy donors to the Moffett for House campaign include members of the Brown Forman family and David Jones, the founder of Humana who is well-known as the prominent and long-time backer of McConnell’s political endeavors. (While most of these contributions came in $1,000 or $500 increments, Moffett also got a $50 check from Bridget Bush who is on the board of the American Crossroads aligned dark money group, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition).
Perhaps even more interesting is a check Moffett received on May 8th for $1,000 from NAGR PAC of Windsor, Colorado.
NAGR PAC is the political action committee of the National Association for Gun Rights, a group that operates to the right of the NRA and is closely aligned with Rand Paul and the Paul family. NAGR has angered establishment Republicans by endorsing Tea Party alternatives and opposing GOP stalwarts like Eric Cantor and Thad Cochran. Like Club for Growth and the Tea Party Express, NAGR largely sat out the Kentucky Senate race despite being very active in other contentious races across the country.
One of NAGR’s board members, Michael Rothfeld, is mentioned on the Kent Sorenson recorded phone call in which Sorenson describes the bribe, just seconds before Sorenson says, “Oh, I know that Jesse knows. I know Jesse knows.”
In Iowa it appears Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager may have been involved in buying a political endorsement from a sitting legislator. What the above might say about Phil Moffett is something else entirely — it’s not illegal, it’s just politics.
And in a sense, that’s why that McConnell “punch ‘em in the nose” phone call is more telling than Jesse Benton’s #NoseGate. The McConnell alliance with Karl Rove and Crossroads undermines all the work Benton was paid $425,000 to do — if the mission was to convince conservatives that Mitch McConnell was one of them, the Mississippi Senate race and McConnell and Rove’s roles in it, are clear evidence that Benton was trying to trick them.
If, however, the mission was to create an sow doubt and silence, perhaps then Mitch can raise a “mission accomplished” banner. If Benton and Kesari were focusing their energy on bringing just a few prominent Tea Party groups on board, and if they were focused on keeping other conservative groups out of the race altogether, then that combination of collusion and silence creates a sense that the other groups, be it Freedom Works or the Senate Conservatives Fund or the United Kentucky Tea Parties, are out on a limb, flapping all alone.
For Phil Moffett, the implications are less clear. He has not replied for a request for comment and it is certainly possible that in his months long dealing with the Forcht Group and other actors who are extraordinarily close to the McConnell campaign, they never once discussed the topic of the U.S. Senate race, Moffett’s potential endorsement or even his stated stance of silence.
Phil Moffett said he was simply focused on the mundane task of running for office and perhaps he was.
But just as any association with Karl Rove can turn True Conservatives against you, the same is true on the other side. The 32nd District House race is one of the most hotly contested in the state with the balance of power in the state legislature at risk. If Moffett’s opponent, the wonderfully accomplished Democrat Ashley Miller, begins to hit Moffett for his close ties to Karl Rove’s banker, Moffett’s silence may be tested and a large swath of Jefferson County Dems may hit the polls.
Whether you follow your money or follow your nose, something doesn’t smell right in McConnell World. After two years of Mitch running his campaign against Harry Reid and Barack Obama, it’d be interesting to see how well he runs weighed down by the ghost of Jesse Benton and the turd blossoms of Karl Rove.