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Mitch McConnell Ready to ‘Move On’ After Campaign Manager’s Resignation

Mitch McConnell last month in Louisville.
Alix Mattingly/WFPL News
Mitch McConnell last month in Louisville.
Mitch McConnell last month in Louisville.
Credit Alix Mattingly/WFPL News
Mitch McConnell last month in Louisville.

Less than a week after his top campaign aide, Jesse Benton, stepped down while being circled by questions from a federal bribery case, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is ready to move forward.

“We’re moving on,” McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Tuesday. “We've got 60-some odd days left in the campaign. We're talking about the future and not the past.”

It’s unclear if Benton’s departurewill persuade voters in Kentucky’s Senate race, but Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes is moving to inject the resignation into the campaign’s bloodstream.

Facing poll numbers that are trending in McConnell’s favor,Grimes’ campaign released a web ad demanding the senator explain the situation further. They are also pushing for the senator to address specific issues related to Benton’s hiring and knowledge of the Iowa scandal.

“It is deeply troubling that Mitch McConnell refuses to answer questions regarding his campaign manager's connection to the bribery scandal's federal criminal investigation,” said Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton in a released statement. “After dodging questions from reporters and voters alike, Kentuckians deserve answers. Hanging up on the people of Kentucky is not an option.”

Among the questions the Grimes team said Kentuckians want to know are when McConnell learned about the Iowa bribery case, what Benton told the senator about his role, and if McConnell is concerned if any of his endorsers were “paid off” to support his re-election.

One notable endorsement McConnell received was Republican Councilwoman Marilyn Parker, a founding Louisville tea partier, who received a $1,000 contribution from McConnell’s leadership PAC in August 2012.

“We are thrilled to have Councilwoman Parker's support,” Benton said at the time. “Her proven leadership as a grassroots activist and an elected official will help to unite people in the fight against President Obama's harmful agenda that threatens Kentucky families.”

In 2013, Parker discouraged other grassroots activists from recruiting a primary challenger to take on McConnell, and formally endorsed the senator later that year.

After Benton's resignation, Parker told WFPL no financial incentive was ever offered to back McConnell, and she would have been offended if it were made.

Jesse Benton, center.
Credit Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons
Jesse Benton, center.

“I choose to endorse Senator McConnell because of his experience and institutional knowledge that he has in this point in time, which is important to have in the Senate,” said Parker. “Jesse wasn’t involved at all. I would be a little taken aback had that occurred.”

Other tea party activists and GOP lawmakers who endorsed McConnell also denied receiving any direct payments in interviews.

Kentucky state House candidate Phil Moffett said leading up to the May primary he was approached by both the McConnell and businessman Matt Bevin’s campaign for an endorsement.

Moffett remained neutral in the contest, but would not disclose who from either side approached him at that time. He also bristled at questions if money played a role in staying out of the Bevin-McConnell contest.

“Good lord,” he said. “Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous. You’re above this. You think for some reason I’ve been offered a bribe? That’s silly.”

The liberal-leaning news site, Barefoot and Progressive, focusedone of its reports on Moffett for receiving hefty donations from Terry Forcht,the head of the Lexington-based Forcht Group, during his Republican primary race this year.

Forcht is among the top funders of McConnell’s campaigns and the contribution was seen as a big catch for Moffett, who defeated a more establishment candidate in May. He hung up with a reporter before being asked if the Forcht donation encouraged him to remain neutral in the Senate primary.

“Why would anybody care about my race, it’s a House race,” said Moffett. “This is silly, of course not. Who’s putting you on this kind of bull—? This is just crazy and it’s a waste of your time and mine.”

Observers tell WFPL short of a bribery charge being made in Kentucky’s Senate race, voters aren’t as concerned with campaign staff shakeups as reporters and McConnell’s opponents would like them to be.

“If you’ll notice this story was strategically placed right at the three-day weekend and sort of got buried,” said political science professor Dewey Clayton. “Unless there are new revelations I don’t foresee this as being a huge game-changer.”

“Clearly it could potentially have legs if it becomes a huge distraction for the McConnell campaign, and rather than be on message they have to answer questions about this.”

Copyright 2014 89.3 WFPL News Louisville

Phillip M. Bailey became WFPL's political editor in 2011, covering city, state and regional campaigns and elected officials. He also covers Metro Government, including the mayor's office and Metro Council. Before coming to WFPL, Phillip worked for three years as a staff writer at LEO Weekly and was a fellow at the Academy of Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.