NPR logo As McConnell Aide Holds His Nose, The Senator Stays His Hand

As McConnell Aide Holds His Nose, The Senator Stays His Hand

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Jacquelyn Martin/AP hide caption

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Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Sen. Mitch McConnell undoubtedly had no illusions that he would be the ideal candidate of Tea Party conservatives.

Still, the Republican leader in the Senate couldn't have expected what sounds like disdain from his own campaign manager.

"Between you and me, I'm sorta 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," Jesse Benton, the campaign manager, said during a phone call, secretly recorded early this year by a conservative activist, and recently published by Economic Policy Journal.

Benton, a libertarian, has been a top campaign aide to both Ron Paul, the former congressman from Texas, and his son, the junior senator from Kentucky, who is talked of as a possible presidential candidate. Benton is also married to a granddaughter of the elder Paul.

Jesse Benton, left, talks with then-Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 13, 2011. Benton is now campaign manager for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

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Charles Dharapak/AP

Benton, hired by McConnell 11 months ago, was supposed to be the Senate minority leader's emissary to Tea Party conservatives, especially now that he tries to get past a primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin.

Benton's words could prove damaging to McConnell if it gives enough Kentucky conservatives one more reason to vote against the four-term incumbent. And Benton tried to clean up the political mess in a statement released by the McConnell campaign:

"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. Being selected to lead his campaign is one of the great honors of my life and I look forward to victory in November of 2014."

All in all, it's not easy being McConnell right about now. He is viewed by many conservatives, including evidently his campaign manager, as an establishment Republican too ready to make deals with Democrats.

If it's too much for him to both grin and bear the diss by Benton, he at least has to bear it. Firing Benton would inflame exactly the voters McConnell was hoping Benton could soothe. So that doesn't appear to be an option.

He also has a feisty Republican primary foe who could require McConnell to burn through a lot of his $10 million war chest and, if the senator succeeds, soften him up for the Democrat.

And that Democrat, Alison Lundergan Grimes, recently showed that she can deliver a devastating attack line when she said McConnell couldn't even "pass a kidney stone." But more painful than that for McConnell might be a recent poll — albeit by a Democratic pollster – that found Grimes and McConnell essentially tied.

Still, it's early and McConnell is an experienced political infighter. While The Cook Political Report has moved the race to toss-up status, Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball still favors McConnell to win the race.