It’s not easy for many coastal liberals to understand how it can be that Mitch McConnell is facing a conservative challenge in the Republican primary for his Senate re-election. How could there be any space to the right of the man who has devoted himself to stymieing Barack Obama at every turn these past few years? I put this question to the Tea Party activists I spoke with in western Kentucky last weekend, and they offered several areas where McConnell had let them down—primarily, voting for the TARP bailouts in 2008 and going along with the expansion of the post-September 11 security state.
But what came through in my conversations was that the discontent with McConnell was not really issue-based. It was more personal than that. The activists simply held a deep scorn for McConnell and what he, to them, represented: a Washington politician out for himself.
This is the backdrop to the wild turn things have taken in Kentucky today, involving McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton. Benton served as campaign manager for the successful 2010 general election campaign of his uncle, Rand Paul. In the primary, Paul had defeated McConnell’s chosen candidate, Trey Grayson, but McConnell, seeing how strong the Tea Party wave behind Paul was, lined up strongly behind Paul as soon as the primary was over and has done his best ever since to present himself in alliance with him. This included voting for Paul’s controversial proposal last week to cut off all foreign aid to Egypt. And it included hiring as his campaign manager Jesse Benton, who took the job even though he had just a few years earlier worked for the fellow who had won his primary by setting himself against McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment.
Tea Party supporters in Kentucky are generally forgiving of Paul’s tacit support of McConnell’s reelection, seeing it as basic Senate etiquette, but Benton’s acceptance of the McConnell job (at Paul’s urging) has raised plenty of eyebrows. Today’s those raised eyebrows have turned to chuckles with the release of a recording in which Benton candidly admits to a conservative activist what the deal is: “Between you an me, I’m sorta holding my nose for two years ‘cause what we’re doing here is gonna be a big benefit to Rand in ‘16.”
Benton has condemned the release of the recording (what is it with Kentucky politics and secret recordings, anyway?) saying, “It is truly sick that someone would record a private phone conversation I had out of kindness and use it to try to hurt me. I believe in Senator McConnell and am 100 percent committed to his re-election.” And McConnell has made no move to drop Benton over his nose-holding.
But David Adams, who managed Paul’s primary campaign in 2010 before being replaced by Benton, told me that the episode shows just what a bind McConnell finds himself in with the conservative wing as he now faces a viable Tea Party challenge from businessman Matt Bevin.
“I’ve been telling everybody who would sit still the last six months that when that relationship [between McConnell and Benton] blows up, it’ll be funny. It’s even better now that we learn that he’s not fired. It just rolls on and on and on,” said Adams. “Think of it from McConnell’s perspective—if he fires him, who does he hire? He doesn’t hire a Tea Party guy, and that throws the Tea Party out the window. He gives up on the idea that he has this symbiotic relationship with Rand Paul that extends to bringing in his campaign manager.” Instead, McConnell must stick with a man whose feelings about his candidate are now plain to all—even though the hiring of that person did not stave off a Tea Party challenge as hoped. “The purpose of having Jesse was having no primary opponent. Now he has a top-tier one. It’s disastrous any way you look at it.”
There are still nine months until the primary. Pull up your chair, nose plugged or no.
*Addendum, 5:40 pm: The McConnell campaign tweeted this out just now to try to make light of the whole episode.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis