Making sense of Kentucky's soap opera U.S. Senate race

Herald-Leader Political writerAugust 31, 2014 

Senator Mitch McConnell, left, and Jesse Benton

While most of Kentucky labored toward a three-day weekend of barbecues and college football, the sleepless political world within was frenetically growing to a boil, blowing its lid late Friday about the time the rest of the Bluegrass was punching out to enjoy Labor Day.

When Jesse Benton informed the Herald-Leader on Friday afternoon that he was resigning as campaign manager for U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democrats already were on a full-fledged attack, McConnell was counterattacking and the latest Bluegrass Poll was set to be released Saturday night.

McConnell's secretly recorded remarks about blocking "gosh darn" proposals like raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment insurance benefits already had worked his opponents into a lather after being released late Tuesday by the liberal-leaning The Nation.

Super PACs supporting Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes — or perhaps more accurately, super PACs dreaming of McConnell being drawn and quartered — were on the air with ads by Friday, launching full-scale attacks.

While McConnell's remarks to a retreat sponsored by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch weren't much different from the public stances he's taken on those issues, Grimes and her allies were gifted with yet another arrow in their quiver with which to portray McConnell as out-of-touch, gone Washington and beholden to "millionaires and billionaires" instead of regular Kentucky folks.

After weeks on defense, scrambling to explain the seemingly incredible and possibly illegal deal Grimes got on a campaign bus from her father's company, Democrats were fighting back. Grimes went on MSBNC on Thursday night to drive home the point to the faithful and any skittish national donors who might have been watching.

Then Christmas came twice in three days for the Grimes camp when Benton abruptly resigned, telling the Herald-Leader he was worried that a two-year-old scandal in Iowa that threatened to destroy his political career might also hurt McConnell. (Despite his resignation, Benton maintains he was not involved in a bribery scandal from the waning days of the 2012 Iowa caucuses that resulted in a guilty plea last week by a former Iowa state senator.)

What happens next — to Benton, to McConnell, to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul — depends on any number of unknowns.

From an infrastructure perspective, not much will change within the McConnell campaign. Josh Holmes, the right-hand man who has been with McConnell for almost eight years, has been in command of the re-election campaign since spring.

Benton is known as a talented field operative and is genuinely well-liked by McConnell and his aides. But it always defied belief that his hire two years ago was anything other than what it looked like from the outside — a way for McConnell to try and quiet a restless and angry Tea Party and win favor with Paul, a key surrogate.

Benton was Team Mitch, but considering the intensely loyal army of aides McConnell has cultivated and kept over the years, it's probably fair to say he was never really part of Mitch's team.

For Benton, the biggest question is how bad will it get? Regardless of whether the legal system is done with the longtime confidante to — and, by marriage, a member of — the Paul family and surprise McConnell hire, it's a safe bet that the political world is done with him. At least, the side that hires Republican operatives.

The other side, the side that salivates at the idea of a McConnell concession speech Nov. 4, well, what they are able to make out of Benton's steep fall will determine whether this is yet another speed bump in McConnell's sometimes stumbling bid for a sixth term or whether this is a warning that a dead end lies ahead.

When the latest Bluegrass Poll was released Saturday night showing Grimes down 4 points to McConnell, the Grimes campaign, which was been uncharacteristically restrained after the Benton explosion, responded by noting that the poll "does not reflect the tornado of bad news that has upended Sen. McConnell's campaign this week, including a secret tape and a bribery scandal that resulted in the resignation of his campaign manager."

McConnell's camp wasn't idle or licking its wounds, instead releasing a new ad Saturday about Grimes' bus troubles. As an issue for voters to digest, it's pretty convoluted, but at this point it might at least help further muddy the waters in an election year in which voters already appear to be disgusted with both parties.

How well Grimes can connect the dots between Benton, the Koch brothers and McConnell is only part of the story.

Remember, McConnell has a 36 percent favorable rating, so well more than half of voters already think the worst of him.

Benton's resignation, just like the secret recordings, might confirm voters' worst suspicions of McConnell, but it's hard to say that either will change the overall structure of the race.

The fact that McConnell is leading this race while being so unpopular indicates that, at the end of the day, the big question still remains, who do the majority of Kentucky voters find more repellent: McConnell or any candidate from the party of President Barack Obama?

Ultimately, the person most damaged from this saga, aside from Benton and his family, could end up being Paul and his 2016 presidential ambitions.

It's no secret that the state's junior senator has devoted as much effort to GOP establishment outreach as he has minority outreach, both of which are intensely skeptical of the Tea Party candidate-turned-presidential-frontrunner.

Benton is as closely identified with Paul as anyone within the political world. And the lesson some establishment Republicans might take could be in the form of a cautionary tale courtesy of McConnell, whose house was shaken after inviting a member of the Paul family inside.

In Iowa, in establishment circles and in conversations about 2016, Benton might end up looming much larger than he does at this moment in the Senate race.

Or not. It's Rand Paul. Establishment mistrust and staff scandals are old hat in Randland, and it's impossible to keep track of how many political lives that cat has left.

What can be said with relative certainty is this: Enjoy what's left of your Labor Day weekend. Kentucky politics appears to be headed for new levels of intrigue, venom and bare-knuckle brawling.

And the way this race is heating up, that just might be on Tuesday.

Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Email: Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog:

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