Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, locked in a fierce reelection fight in Kentucky, lost the services Friday of his tea party-allied campaign manager, who abruptly quit over a scandal involving the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses.
Jesse Benton, a former strategist for presidential hopeful Ron Paul as well as his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, issued a written statement announcing his departure, even as he proclaimed his innocence. "I hope those who know me recognize that I strive to be a man of integrity," Benton said.
Benton's name has surfaced in connection with the payoff of a former Iowa state senator who pleaded guilty this week to federal charges relating to his endorsement of Ron Paul in December 2011.
Former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, a popular tea party figure, admitted he accepted secret payments from the Paul campaign to abandon his support for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman just ahead of the 2012 caucuses. The payments totaled $73,000, Sorenson acknowledged.
Benson firmly denied the allegations of impropriety: "What is most troubling to me is that they risk unfairly undermining and becoming a distraction to this reelection campaign.… I cannot, and will not, allow any possibility that my circumstances will affect the voters' ability to hear [McConnell's] message and assess his record. This election is far too important and the stakes way too high."
Despite suggesting he left of his own accord, however, one person with knowledge of the campaign said that Benton had been pressured to go.
Sorenson pleaded guilty to two criminal charges — obstruction of justice and causing a campaign to falsely report expenditures — and faces up to 25 years in prison.
Prosecutors did not say who made the payments. But the Iowa Republican, an online publication focused on state GOP politics, published materials suggesting Benton's involvement. "Oh, I know that Jesse knows," Sorenson stated on an audio recording recounted by the Iowa Republican. "I know Jesse knows."
Benton's hiring by McConnell was seen as a canny strategic move, repairing a rift with Rand Paul and the tea party wing of the GOP, which has long viewed the party's Senate leader with suspicion.
McConnell vigorously campaigned against Paul when he ran for Senate in 2010, though he came around to endorsing him after Paul won the Republican primary. Benton managed Paul's Senate campaign. (Besides doing political work for the Pauls, Benton is married to the senior Paul's granddaughter.)
Paul, in turn, endorsed McConnell when he faced a tea party challenge in Kentucky's May primary, which the five-term incumbent handily overcame.
McConnell stands to become majority leader if Republicans win control of the Senate in November. First, though, he must overcome a strong challenge from Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Democratic secretary of state.
Despite his title, Benton played a secondary strategic role in McConnell's race. He was expected to play a more significant part in Rand Paul's anticipated 2016 presidential campaign.
His resignation was not the first time Benton drew unwanted attention. Last year, he was recorded telling a Republican activist that he was "sort of holding my nose for two years" working for McConnell for the benefit of Rand Paul's 2016 presidential hopes.
Benton quickly apologized and McConnell, showing there were no hard feelings, good-naturedly posed for picture with Benton holding his nose.
Benton ended his statement Friday with a biblical verse: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."