Follow the Money, Follow Your Nose: Mitch McConnell, the Ghost of Jesse Benton & Karl Rove’s Banker (Long Read)

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.


Better days?

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 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 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 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 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.

Rare lede: "The tea party beat the Republican establishment Tuesday in the GOP primary..."

Rare lede: “The tea party beat the Republican establishment Tuesday in the GOP primary…”

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.)

A Pot of Gold?

A Pot of Gold?

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.


Shellie May fundraising totals.


Phil Moffett fundraising totals.

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.

McConnell’s “Presidential Level” Campaign Dodges Questions, Offers Questionable Timelines

Mitch McConnell this morning dodged questions about his campaign manager’s sudden departure amid a growing bribe scandal in Iowa.

The McConnell campaign and its spokesfolks have remained mostly silent on the issue as well, presumably as they try to get their quacks in a row. In fact, McConnell’s spokeswoman literally hung up on reporters when asked to comment on the record about Benton’s departure — seriously: she hung up the phone:

What Team Mitch has said is this:

Hyllus was contracted in early 2013 for a specific project, which was accomplished that spring, well before the campaign was made aware of any previous alleged impropriety,” she said. “The campaign has had no further dealings with Hyllus.”

What the timeline shows:

  • Hyllus received multiple payments beginning in February 2013 and continuing well into July 2013.
  • The Kesari/Benton/Sorenson bribery story and allegations break just three weeks after the last known payment to Hyllus.
  • The Kesari/Benton/Sorenson bribery story and allegations break just days after longtime McConnell aide is suddenly shifted to an official role on the campaign.
  • After the story breaks, the McConnell campaign appears to have terminated their relationship with Hyllus.
  • In less than two years running McConnell’s campaign, Jesse Benton was paid over $425,000 according to FEC filings.
  • In just six months, from the time it was engaged until the Iowa bribe story first broke, Hyllus Corp. was paid over $70,000 by the McConnell campaign.
  • The McConnell campaign now claims that Josh Holmes has been running the campaign since April 2014 — despite the fact that Jesse Benton continued to receive large payments and was regularly seen at campaign events, as recently as Fancy Farm at the beginning of this month.

A presidential-level campaign, indeed.

9.13.2012 — Mitch McConnell hires former Ron Paul for President Campaign Manager to manage his own 2014 re-election campaign in Kentucky. It is a calculated move to stave off Tea Party challengers and amelioriate the conservative grassroots.

“We’re committed to running a presidential-level campaign in Kentucky and that starts with a presidential campaign manager,” McConnell said in a statement. “Jesse is literally the best in the business at building and organizing conservative grass-roots movements and I’m thrilled he’s chosen to return to Kentucky to lead my campaign.”

“It is a real honor to join Senator McConnell’s team,” Benton said in a statement. “I look forward to playing my part in re-electing a great leader who can truly unite a broad coalition of Americans and get out country back on track.”

Click on for more questions, fuller timeline.

A Presidential Level Campaign: Questions for Mitch McConnell and a Benton/Kesari Timeline

Questions for the McConnell campaign first, timeline below:

  1. In the first week of August 2013 recorded phone calls were released which indicated that Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton was involved in bribing a State Senator for his endorsement in the 2012 Republican Presidential Iowa Caucus.  
    • Did Mitch McConnell ask Benton at that time whether he was involved in this apparently criminal plot?
    • Whose idea was it to respond to the recording, a serious allegation of criminal wrongdoing, with a joke photo of McConnell standing by Benton as he held his nose?
    • If McConnell did not ask Benton about his role in the apparently criminal act, why not?
    • And if Mitch McConnell did ask Benton about it, what did Jesse Benton say? 
  2. Is Jesse Benton the subject of an ongoing federal investigation?
    • If he is, how long has Mitch McConnell known about it?
    • If he is not, does the McConnell campaign worry such an investigation may soon be looming?
  3. Have federal authorities questioned Jesse Benton about the Kent Sorenson case and the bribe Sorenson has plead guilty to receiving?
    • If so, when did that questioning take place?
    • And when (and how) did Mitch McConnell learn about it?
  4. Have any groups that have endorsed Mitch McConnell been paid to join Team Mitch?
  5. Have any individuals, be they lawmakers or grassroots organizers, been paid for their endorsement of Mitch McConnell?
  6. Has any person been offered money by the McConnell campaign or its associates to endorse the McConnell campaign during the run-up to the Republican Primary?
  7. On a scale of 1 to 10, how certain is Mitch McConnell that none of his endorsers have been bribed or illegally incentivized to join his team?

What the McConnell campaign says:

Hyllus was contracted in early 2013 for a specific project, which was accomplished that spring, well before the campaign was made aware of any previous alleged impropriety,” she said. “The campaign has had no further dealings with Hyllus.”

What the timeline shows:

  • Hyllus received multiple payments beginning in February 2013 and continuing well into July 2013.
  • The Kesari/Benton/Sorenson bribery story and allegations break just three weeks after the last known payment to Hyllus.
  • After the story breaks, the McConnell campaign appears to have terminated their relationship with Hyllus.


In the Spring of 2012, Mitch McConnell began preparing his campaign for re-election. The five term Senator, desperate to win his sixth, wanted to put together a “presidential level” campaign but faced a number of problems. McConnell was deeply unpopular across the country as well as in his home state, having barely survived a 2008 campaign in the same election in which Kentuck chose McCain by 16%. McConnell was also deeply afraid of the Tea Party movement. In 2010, McConnell’s hand picked candidate was trounced in the Republican primary by Rand Paul and the state’s conservative voters. McConnell harbored a deep fear the same fate might await him.

McConnell set about building a campaign to consolidate his power — whether by wining over Tea Partiers, strong arming the competition or simply stealing away their leaders. In article after article, McConnell’s fear of the a Primary is cited and by September of 2012, Kentucky’s Senior Senator had hired Jesse Benton, the former campaign manager for Ron Paul and Rand Paul, to run his own campaign.

Benton’s role, from the outset, was to build a bridge to the Tea Party, one way or another. Two years later, Benton has resigned his position in the wake of a guilty plea out of Iowa in which a State Senator, Kent Sorenson, says the Ron Paul campaign Benton managed bribed him for his endorsement in the 2012 Presidential campaign. In that instance, the Ron Paul campaign was desperate for conservative support and bought the State Senator out of the camp of Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachmann.

What follows is an initial and partial timeline of Benton’s first year at the helm of the McConnell campaign. At an initial glance, it is clear Benton was brought in to win over, one way or another, the Tea Party opposition to McConnell’s campaign. Among the tactics that appear to have been used was the hiring of a company, Hyllus Corp, that is associated with Benton’s former Deputy.

The payments to Hyllus begin in early 2013 and end just weeks before a recorded phone call is released in which the Sorenson claims first come to light.

In the space of just six months, the McConnell campaign paid Hyllus over $70,000. In less than two years on the job, the McConnell campaign paid Jesse Benton over $400,000. 

Given what is alleged to have transpired in Iowa, the question becomes: What was Hyllus being paid to do, and what did Hyllus do for that money?

If you have dates or information to add to this timeline or to share, leave a comment below or drop a line to barefootandprogressive[at]gmail[dot]com, use our contact form, or email me at david[dot]schankula[at]gmail[dot]com.



3.12.2012 — Longtime McConnell aide Josh Holmes tells the National Journal that McConnell is putting together a “presidential level” campaign for the election two years off — with a particular focus on dissuading primary challengers.

“He’s prepared to build a presidential-level campaign for 2014,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s Washington chief of staff.


9.13.2012 — Mitch McConnell hires former Ron Paul for President Campaign Manager to manage his own 2014 re-election campaign in Kentucky. It is a calculated move to stave off Tea Party challengers and amelioriate the conservative grassroots.

“We’re committed to running a presidential-level campaign in Kentucky and that starts with a presidential campaign manager,” McConnell said in a statement. “Jesse is literally the best in the business at building and organizing conservative grass-roots movements and I’m thrilled he’s chosen to return to Kentucky to lead my campaign.”

“It is a real honor to join Senator McConnell’s team,” Benton said in a statement. “I look forward to playing my part in re-electing a great leader who can truly unite a broad coalition of Americans and get out country back on track.”


1.22.2013 — Kentucky Tea Party groups issue a warning to Mitch McConnell that they are looking to find a primary opponent to run against him. Jesse Benton tells Phillip Bailey that he is working feverishly to bring Kentucky Tea Partiers into the McConnell fold:

“Leader McConnell is a great friend of the Kentucky Tea Parties and is committed to giving them a seat at the table and bringing their voices to Washington,” Benton told WFPL in a statement. “I have been taking that message to grassroots groups all over the state and have had a wonderful reception.”


2.6.2013 — McConnell endorses Rand Paul’s “Right to Work Act,” a union busting bill crafted hand in hand with the National Right to Work Committee, a committee that previously employed Dimitri Kesari and Paul’s closest political advisor, Doug Stafford.

“I proudly support the National Right to Work Act and will work with my friend Sen. Rand Paul to do all I can to ensure it receives a vote.”

Over the course of 2013, the McConnell campaign also employed Doug Stafford’s wife, Elizabeth Stafford, paying her over $30,000 for “fundraising consulting.” Stafford and Kesari have been accused of running an “off the books direct mail campaign” while at NRWTC that would violate the non-profit’s prohibition against political activity. Stafford is now running Rand Paul’s presidential exploratory campaign strategy.


2.19.213 – McConnell campaign pays Kesari-linked group, Hyllus Corp., $7,102.36 for “Strategic Consulting/Travel.”



2.19.2013 – McConnell’s leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, which focuses much of its energy on disbursing money to state GOP leaders, separately pays Kesari-linked group, Hyllus Corp., $10,145.55 for “strategy consulting.”



3.27.2013 — Jesse Benton tells the Daily Caller that Rand Paul has endorsed Mitch McConnell.


“Rand Paul has endorsed McConnell,” Jesse Benton, McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager, told The Daily Caller.

Benton, who has worked for both Rand Paul and his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, is credited by insiders with brokering Paul’s support for McConnell.

The move quashes a determined effort by Kentucky Republican Liberty Caucus chairman David Adams, who launched Paul’s Senate bid and served as Paul’s campaign manager through the 2010 primaries, and other tea party leaders to mount a primary challenge against McConnell.


3.28.2013 — The next day, Daniel Horowitz, policy director at the Madison Project (which would go on to support Matt Bevin in the primary), laments Rand Paul’s decision in a post at RedState (which loudly opposed McConnell in the primary):

Rand Paul has preemptively endorsed Mitch McConnell before any specific primary challenge has presented itself. McConnell has tapped Rand Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to run his reelection bid, and is running around saying that the two senators are “inseparable.”


4.04.2013 — McConnell campaign pays Kesari-linked group, Hyllus Corp., $19,204.71 for “strategy consulting.”



4.05.2013 – McConnell campaign pays Kesari-linked group, Hyllus Corp., $8,900 for “Strategy Consulting.”


4.12.2013 — Dimitri Kesari is in Hollywood for the Republican National Committee’s Spring Meeting, at which the forces behind Rand Paul 2016 tried to address establishment rule changes made to block Tea Party forces from taking over the party. The meeting ended in a “at least a small setback” for Rand as the RNC rejected the pleas from Kesari and others:

Ron Paul’s 2012 deputy campaign manager, Dimitri Kesari, promised that the state chairmen and committee members who voted against rolling back the Romney rules will be forced to explain themselves if they run for reelection.

“This is just a first salvo,” he said.

5.14.2013 — Days after Mitch McConnell places himself front and center in the fight over “revelations” that the IRS had “targeted” Tea Party groups, one Tea Party group,, endorses McConnell:

“McConnell has been on a warpath following the IRS revelations last week, clearly sensing an opening to attack an agency despised by voters while ingratiating himself to elements of his party’s right-wing that have been skeptical about some of his votes during his three-decade Senate career. His team has been aggressively wooing tea party activists in Kentucky over the last several months, though some in the Bluegrass State are still searching for a viable alternative.”


5.17.2013 — The McConnell campaign announces the endorsement of Judson Phillips and the Tea Party Nation, the only tea party organization classified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

- Phillips says that it would make sense to disenfranchise Americans who are not property owners.

- Phillips blamed “liberals” for the Gabby Giffords massacre in Tuscon, says that Obama is intentionally shielding the real perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing.

- Warned of the extinction of white Americans in an email, stating: “All of these programs, ideals and ideologies are doing one thing and one thing only — reducing America’s core TFR to the point of no return. The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) population in America is headed for extinction and with it our economy, well-being and survival as a uniquely America culture.”

- Phillips demanded that President Obama prove that he’s not a crack addict that enjoys smoking crack and having sex with men.

- Phillips called Wisconsin union members Nazi stormtroopers and says “the left” has “killed a billion people in the last century.”

The endorsement from Phillips/Tea Party Nation was important because national Tea Party groups were in some upheaval after the TeaParty.Net endorsement days before. In his endorsement of McConnell posted on McConnell’s website, Phillips cites that upheaval and at the same time, provides more ‘national’ Tea Party cover for the McConnell campaign as Tea Party frustration within Kentucky continues to mount.


5.29.2013-6.25.2013 — At least $14,000 flows from Tea Party contributors donating to the Tea Party Leadership Pac/TeaPartyNews.Net to Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign through a joint fundraising committee that also gave to Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee. The donation raised eyebrows given the general disdain Tea Party activists have for McConnell. The joint fundraising committee’s donations to McConnell came over a month long period between May and June and the group was set up by Dan Backer, the lead lawyer in the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling that blew the door open for unaltered money to PACs in elections. Dan Backer has deep ties to both Rand Paul and Ron Paul:

Throw into the mix Stand With Rand PAC, for which interestingly, the treasurer is Dan Backer. He is the same person who helped run the Ron Paul super PAC Endorse Liberty and a second super PAC, Revolution PAC, which also supported Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. The Stand With Rand group ran into problems with the FEC when there were questions about its association with Rand Paul’s political groups.

McConnell’s help on the McCutcheon case in the fall of 2013 leading to the Supreme Court decision in early 2014 lead Backer to publicly praise McConnell:

“The senator understands that your rights belong to you and they’re not given to you by the government,” says attorney Dan Backer, who was McCutcheon’s lead counsel. “He has been a real champion and hero on that. His involvement, I think, brought a whole new perspective to the legal arguments and we were very excited and very supportive of his position being argued at the court.”


7.09.2013 – The Washington Free Beacon breaks the story of Jack Hunter, the “Southern Avenger” and co-author of Rand Paul’s book. Hunter, a close associate of both Ron and Rand Paul, wears a Confederate flag wrestling mask and promotes a worldview in which whites are under attack and John Wilkes Booth is a hero for having shot and killed President Lincoln. Rand Paul initially stands by Hunter, who remains on the Senator’s staff, and McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, lashes out at Kentucky Democrats for calling for Rand to fire Hunter.

As campaign manager for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, and in his role on Rand Paul’s 2010 Senate campaign, Benton worked alongside Hunter — who was often seen in the Ron Paul corner of the 2012 campaign spin rooms. In fact, when the Southern Avenger was trying to get a national radio show in 2010, his top two endorsements came from Ron Paul (“Jack truly gets it”) and Jesse Benton. Benton called the Southern Avenger “a friend and a peer that I really look up to.”

“Jack Hunter is a friend and a peer that I really look up to. He is a leader of our movement, and our generation, both now and for years to come. All young Americans concerned about Freedom and our future should tune in to be regular listeners of Jack’s program.”

JesseBentonJackHunter HunterRonPaulJesseBentonAvenger

7.19.2013 — McConnell campaign pays Kesari-linked group Hyllus Corp. $26,748.60 for “Strategy Consulting.”



7.22.2013 — CN|2 reports that “the United Kentucky Tea Party, a coalition of 14 tea party groups  from around the state, issued an open letter to Tea and Tea Party Nation chastising them for ‘your lack of research and poor judgement’ in backing McConnell.” The McConnell campaign, led by Benton, responds by hosting a party for leaders and the Tea Party caucus in Washington.

Tuesday evening in Washington, McConnell will meet with the Tea activists as well as the congressional tea party caucus at a meeting at the U.S. Capitol. 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 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.


7.23.2013 — National Tea Party groups — The Tea Party News Network and — reaffirm their endorsement Mitch McConnell over strong opposition of local Tea Party groups.

National tea party leaders are not backing down from their endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, despite pushback from local tea party factions in Kentucky.

Speaking with reporters outside an event that featured appearances by all of the prominent tea-party-backed senators, Scottie Hughes of defended her group’s decision to back the Kentucky Republican. McConnell helped the group organize the event in the Capitol.

Both Hughes’ Tea Party News Network and its umbrella organization have endorsed McConnell, even though he is expected to pick up a tea-party-inspired primary challenger on Wednesday. Local groups in Kentucky have asked the national groups to rescind their support.


7.29.2013 — The same day the conservative Madison Project endorses Matt Bevin, the Club for Growth refuses to pick a side in the brewing primary.

“The Club for Growth PAC met with Matt Bevin many months ago, and we’d like to hear more about his candidacy and the differences between him and Senator McConnell on the issues,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said. “The Club’s PAC will watch Kentucky’s Senate race — as it would with any race — over the coming months to determine if our involvement is warranted.”

The Club for Growth would play the same deflective role three months later, praising McConnell on the same day the Senate Conservative Fund endorsed Bevin. Although the Club for Growth, which lately has been tied up in a brewing Wisconsin scandal, endorsed Tea Partiers against establishment candidates in both Mississippi and Nebraska, they never endorsed either candidate in Kentucky.

8.01.2013 — Mitch McConnell’s Chief of Staff, Josh Holmes, steps down. A long time McConnell aide, Holmes leaves the Senate Minority Leader’s office and moves to a dual role as senior advisor to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and senior advisor to McConnell’s re-election campaign.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chief of staff is stepping down from his position to focus exclusively on the GOP leader’s reelection campaign and the national Republican effort to take back the majority next year….

“I’m going to be leaving this job as Sen. McConnell’s chief of staff to head to the NRSC and Sen. McConnell’s campaign for the duration of the cycle,” Holmes said in an email. “This may be the best chance for Republicans in a generation to pick up the majority in the Senate, and Leader McConnell wants to ensure that we have all hands on deck.”


8.07.2013 — Just days later, a recorded phone call between former Ron Paul aide Dennis Fusaro and Iowa State Senator Kent Sorenson is released, breaking the story of how the Ron Paul for President campaign, managed by Jesse Benton with Dimitri Kesari acting as Deputy Campaign Manager, had apparently sought to bribe Sorenson for his endorsement.

Sorenson also confirms that Paul’s National Campaign Chairman, Jesse Benton, was aware of Kesari’s actions. After asking Fusaro if he thought the key players inside the upper echelons of the Ron Paul campaign knew of Kesari’s actions, Fusaro stated that he was confident that Benton knew. Sorenson quickly responds by saying, “Oh, I know Jesse knows. I know Jesse knows.”

The story breaks less than one month after the McConnell campaign paid Hyllus $26,000 in one lump sum. That check, on July 19th, 2013, would turn out to be the last from the McConnell campaign to Hyllus.


8.08.2013 — Recording surfaced of phone call between former Ron Paul aide Dennis Fusaro and Jesse Benton in which Benton describes his disdain for Mitch McConnell and his secret plan:

“Between you and me, I’m sort of holdin’ my nose for two years because what we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in ’16, so that’s my long vision.”


8.08.2013 — McConnell campaign tries to playfully deflect the secret Benton phone recording by releasing a photo of McConnell standing beside Benton as Benton holds his nose.



8.13.2013 — Benton tells WHAS he didn’t mean it about “holding his nose” and that really the McConnell and Paul campaigns could not be closer.

“There is going to be a substantial part of ‘Team Mitch’ that, God willing, will go and fuse with ‘Team Paul,’ who already has a great team in place,” said Jesse Benton, “and I think will just make a tremendous campaign operation.”


10.09.2013 — Judson Phillips & Tea Party Nation withdraw their endorsement of McConnell, supposedly because of McConnell’s statements against the Senate Conservative Fund — but in May 2014, Phillips and the Tea Party Nation switched back, endorsing McConnell again and this time attacking the Senate Conservative Fund himself.


8.29.2014 — Jesse Benton resigns as campaign manager for the McConnell campaign.





Other noteworthy dates…

In the second half of 2013 alone, Mitch McConnell’s Bluegrass Committee doled out $59,000 to incumbent Republicans in the State House and State Senate. With support like that flowing every year from Mitch down the RPK, there are simply less Kent Sorensons within the state.

– December 11th, 2013, Mitch McConnell’s wife, the Honorable Elaine Chao of Washington DC, wrote a check for Rand Paul’s Victory Committee:

P.O. BOX 1118
WASHINGTON, DC 200131118
HERITAGE FOUNDATION 12/11/2013 5200.00


Mitch & Hyllus? 3.27.13 → Benton “credited by insiders with brokering Rand Paul’s support for McConnell.”

Mitch McConnell’s campaign continues to dodge questions on the Iowa bribery scandal that threatens to draw in McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton and at least one other person paid by the McConnell campaign.

In an Courier Journal’s excellent rundown out this afternoon of the scandal and what we know so far —  the McConnell team dodges the question of why they paid the person linked to passing checks in the bribery scandal or what they paid for, saying only:

Hyllus was contracted in early 2013 for a specific project, which was accomplished that spring, well before the campaign was made aware of any previous alleged impropriety,” she said. “The campaign has had no further dealings with Hyllus.”

Hyllus is the company linked to Dimitri Kesari. Kesari was Ron Paul’s deputy campaign manager and is known to have passed Kent Sorenson a $25,000 check in a bathroom two days before Sorenson endorsed Ron Paul. Ron Paul’s campaign manager at the time was Jesse Benton and Sorenson is on the record indicating that Benton knew full well of the bribe.

But what project was Hyllus hired by Team Mitch to carry out early in 2013 which was then “accomplished that spring”?

We don’t know because the McConnell campaign won’t say, but if you look back at what was accomplished that spring, you can take one good guess:


On March 27th, 2013, the conservative Daily Caller broke the news that Rand Paul had endorsed Mitch McConnell in the 2014 Kentucky Senate race. Their source? Jesse Benton — “credited by insiders with brokering Paul’s support for McConnell.”

“Rand Paul has endorsed McConnell,” Jesse Benton, McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager, told The Daily Caller.

Benton, who has worked for both Rand Paul and his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, is credited by insiders with brokering Paul’s support for McConnell.

Maybe the word “broker” wasn’t being used figuratively.

The Courier Journal and many other outlets put the payment from the McConnell campaign to Hyllus at $61,000 — but as OpenSecrets has detailed, there is an additional $10,000 going from McConnell’s leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, to Hyllus at the same time.


Video Roundup: New ad smashes Mitch on outsourcing, Alison goes positive & Maddow’s got questions about McConnell’s Iowa problem

Mitch McConnell gets a hard time over his terrible record on job creation (“It’s not my job!” says Mitch) but by not protecting Kentucky jobs, Mitch is actually doing the citizens of the Commonwealth a favor — Senator Mitch McConnell is on a mission to guarantee that every day is Labor Day! That’s why your friends aren’t working. It’s a years long holiday. Thanks, Mitch and Happy Labor Day!

Let’s watch videos… a lot of interesting moving images came out last night on TV and today on the online so let’s get to it.

First up, new ad from Majority PAC on Mitch’s career-long record of outsourcing jobs:

Next, Alison Lundergan Grimes goes positive in a new ad:

And finally, Rachel Maddow continues to hunt out the details on the culture of corruption (see here) swirling around Mitch McConnell’s campaign:

A GOP Culture of Corruption Creeping Closer to Mitch McConnell?

Mitch McConnell’s having a rough week. His campaign manager, who all but disappeared earlier this summer, is tied to an endorsement-buying scheme in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses, and audio of Mitch’s closed-door address to the Billionaires of America club at the Father’s Day Koch Retreat was leaked to the public for all to hear.

If you missed the cash-for-endorsement story, Maddow covered it in depth last night — Ron Paul’s Iowa campaign paid a State Senator, Kent Sorenson, for his endorsement, an effort that appears to be spearheaded by and certainly entangles McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton. That State Senator yesterday plead guilty to related charges:

Jesse Benton has had a very quiet summer, surprising for a guy serving as campaign manager for McConnell in the most expensive Senate race in US history, and perhaps this guilty plea explains Benton’s absence.

Yesterday’s proceedings did not indicate who had arranged the payment, but, as the Washington Post reports, there are clues:

The court filings did not identify the Paul operative, but in a recording of a phone call posted last year by, Sorenson identified him as Dimitri Kesari, then Paul’s deputy national campaign manager. and, the Web site of the nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics, also reported last year on emails in which representatives of Paul and Sorenson allegedly discussed his demands for payment.

Paul’s campaign chairman at the time was Jesse Benton, who is now running the re-election bid of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

What’s interesting here is that Benton isn’t McConnell’s only tie to the Sorenson guilty plea — Dimitri Kesari has also been on the McConnell payroll, as OpenSecrets reported last year:

The campaign of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hired a former Ron Paul campaign aide accused of trying to buy the endorsement of an Iowa state senator in 2012, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. The aide, Dimitri Kesari, was also implicated in allegations made last week by a former National Right to Work Committee employee who says the politically active nonprofit broke Iowa state campaign finance rules and misled the Internal Revenue Service about its political activity.

An review of FEC filings made by McConnell’s campaign found that it has paid a company called Hyllus Corp. $61,954 so far in 2013. There were four payments, all of which list “strategic consulting” as the service being purchased. The most recent check went out July 19.

….Besides the $61,954 paid by the McConnell campaign, the senator’s leadership PAC, Bluegrass Committee, also paid Hyllus $10,145 on Feb. 19 — the same day the campaign paid the firm $7,102.

Kesari, Paul’s deputy campaign manager, delivered a check to the guilty pleading Sorenson, and emails indicate that Benton, Paul’s campaign manager, was involved in negotiating with Sorenson for the endorsement — and both later worked for McConnell, with Benton, apparently, still in charge of McConnell’s campaign.

It will be interesting to see what happens next for McConnell and Benton, and in Iowa. Coupled with unfolding events in Wisconsin, where the Club for Growth was engaged in questionable political activities endeavored hand-in-hand with Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election campaign, the unending nonsense in New Jersey with Chris Christie, and the charming case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell — the Republican mid-term hopes could be descending quickly into a “culture of corruption” October storyline.

The Iowa doings of Kesari, Benton and Sorenson are potentially even more interesting when one considers that Kesari is a former employee of the non-profit anti-union group the National Right to Work Committee, which is under scrutiny of its own for its political activities, allegedly running off-the-books direct mail campaigns [link].

Kesari worked at National Right to Work alongside Doug Stafford — and while at NRWC, Doug Stafford was hired to work on Rand Paul’s 2010 Senate campaign and is now widely considered to be Rand Paul’s top political advisor and is the head of Paul’s exploratory “50-State Campaign” prepping Rand’s presidential run [link].

Stafford’s wife is on the McConnell campaign’s payroll:

According to reports filed by McConnell’s campaign, Elizabeth Stafford has been paid a total of $30,000 so far this year for fundraising consulting. Stafford is the wife of Doug Stafford, the executive director of Reinventing A New Direction PAC (RAND PAC), Paul’s leadership PAC. The only other payments made by a federal campaign or political committee to Elizabeth Stafford were two checks from RAND PAC totaling $5,500.

In that other news — if you haven’t heard Mitch McConnell’s Koch audio, you’ll want to give it a listen. In a political world in which a host of well-funded “independent” conservative groups are popping up to push the campaigns and funnel money into helping Republicans like McConnell, Walker and others (for instance, one of the founding directors of the McConnell Dark Money group Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is the current state director for Rand Paul), much of that money is circling around (or at least near) the Koch’s and their shady allies.

Sonka has the breakdown on McConnell’s speech at InsiderLouisville and it’s worth the read if you haven’t yet. Here’s a taste:

“The worst day of my political life was when President George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law in the early part of his first Administration,” said McConnell.

Commentators have noted that McConnell’s tenure in the Senate has included two government shutdowns, multiple wars, the 9/11 attacks, and the financial collapse of 2008. Regarding the latter, McConnell said at the time that the passage of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout for firms directly implicated in the crash was “the Senate at its finest.”

In other words, legislation limiting political spending by the wealthy was his worst day in the Senate, and legislation giving a $700 billion handout to the wealthy was his finest day in the Senate.


INSIDER LOUISVILLE: Will Mitch McConnell’s campaign be sucked into Iowa pay-for-play scandal?


In the secretly recorded speech, McConnell profusely praises the Kochs, from whom he’s directly taken tens of thousands of dollars (not to mention indirect aid) and goes on to blast efforts to raise the minimum wage or help the long-term unemployed, or well, here:

“We’re not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals. All we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage (inaudible), extending unemployment. The student loan package the other day, that’s just going to make things worse. These people believe in all the wrong things.”

There are 150,000 unemployed Kentuckians and overwhelming numbers of Kentucky voters favor raising the minimum wage (see here, here).

The McConnell campaign has tried hard to pretend the leaked audio simply represents McConnell’s usual stump speech, but when reporters tried to talk to him about it, Mitch just ran away:

If you’ve missed that audio in full, here it is: