It’s not every day that you hear a campaign manager openly insulting his or her boss, but by yesterday afternoon, these words by Sen. McConnell’s Jesse Benton were the big national story trumpeted by pretty much every news outlet:
“Between you and me, I’m sort of holding my nose for two years because what we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand (Paul) in ’16, so that’s my long vision.”
In an effort to put out the media firestorm, McConnell’s campaign tweeted out the picture above attempting to laugh off the quote and throw the embarrassing words out of the news cycle. Such an effort at self-deprecating humor has worked before, such as when Marco Rubio tweeted out a picture of the water bottle that he awkwardly lunged for during his response to the State of the Union address.
But Mitch McConnell’s problem is far worse than a dry mouth, and Benton’s words aren’t going to be washed down by any attempt to laugh it off.
In any normal campaign, this story might eventually fade away and be forgotten by voters, or the campaign manager simply being dismissed and replaced, but the importance of Benton to McConnell makes this situation unique.
First of all, McConnell was not in a secure enough position to ask for Benton’s resignation and kill the story. His hiring last year was a key milestone in McConnell’s political shotgun marriage with the Tea Party and his odd couple alliance with Rand Paul. The terms of the deal have always been obvious, but Benton’s own words lay them out for the world to see: Paul and Benton will help McConnell avoid being retired by a Tea Party primary challenge to his right in 2014, and McConnell will help Paul and Benton build the contacts, prestige and power they’ll need to win the presidency in 2016.
If McConnell cut Benton loose, he might seriously risk also losing Paul’s vocal support against Bevin in the primary. The move might also have been perceived as a sign of weakness, and that Benton’s words truly cut to the heart of McConnell’s difficulty in consolidating the support of Kentucky conservatives.
But here’s the problem with the strategy: That weakness is quite real.
Benton’s words perfectly align with the message of the Bevin campaign, as his campaign manager Sarah Durand made clear in her response yesterday:
“Even Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, thinks something stinks with the Mitch McConnell campaign. 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–Matt Bevin.”
In other works, Jesse Benton may be willing to sell out his principles for a phony conservative like Mitch McConnell, but you, the voter, don’t have to, because Matt Bevin is the real thing.
McConnell is hoping these words are forgotten, but Bevin’s entire campaign will now be centered on and repeat them ad nauseum for the next 10 months. They literally could not conceive of a kinder gift, outside of Rand Paul himself being caught saying similar words.
While Bevin’s campaign will trumpet Benton’s honest gaffe, they still have to make sure that they don’t overplay their hand. While Rand Paul is still firmly endorsing McConnell, he has so far refrained from playing attack dog against Bevin. When asked about Bevin following his announcement, Paul simply said that he’s supporting McConnell, and that Bevin is “a good man.” If Bevin goes for Benton’s jugular, however, Paul may see this as directly undermining his 2016 presidential race, and fire back at Bevin with his typical over-the-top rhetoric. If Paul chooses to do this, you can pretty much rule out any chance that Bevin has of pulling off the upset against McConnell, as Paul is currently the unquestioned golden boy among the Republican base in Kentucky.
But in the meantime, McConnell’s dilemma remains. The once mighty king of Kentucky’s Republican Party has been so weakened that he has to put up with having his campaign run by someone who everyone knows doesn’t believe in him and feels dirty about it.
Jesse and Mitch may be outwardly clowning on Instagram, but on the inside they’re in full panic mode, realizing that McConnell’s tenuous political shotgun marriage with the Tea Party is hanging by a thread, along with his chances of breezing to a sixth term in the Senate.