WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign manager said in a taped telephone conversation earlier this year he was "sorta holding my nose" while doing the job, a less-than-flattering remark about a powerful GOP establishment figure struggling to shore up support among tea party voters back home in Kentucky.
In a brief telephone interview Thursday, Jesse Benton did not dispute the authenticity of the taping. "I'm not 100 percent positive. I'm not confirming that, but I'm not denying it either," he said.
In a separate statement emailed to reporters, he said, "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 Sen. McConnell and am 100 percent committed to his re-election."
Benton has deep ties to the tea party wing of the Republican party nationally as well as in Kentucky. He managed Sen. Rand Paul's successful run for the Senate from Kentucky in 2010, a race in which McConnell backed a different contender in the party primary before endorsing the eventual winner in the fall campaign.
Benton also worked for Sen. Paul's father, former Rep. Ron Paul, in his unsuccessful 2008 and 2012 campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination.
McConnell tapped Benton to manage his own re-election campaign for 2014 in a political marriage of convenience of sorts meant to shore up his own support with tea party activists.
Even so, in recent weeks, McConnell has drawn a primary challenger, Matt Bevin, who says he is the real conservative in the race.
Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes is seeking the Democratic nomination.
An audio of the Jan. 9 telephone conversation was posted by Economic Policy Journal, which said the call had been placed to Benton by Dennis Fusaro, who said in an interview he worked for Ron Paul in a congressional campaign from Texas in 1998 and also in his 2008 presidential bid.
On the audio, Fusaro initially asks Benton whether he knows anything about reports that Paul's campaign paid to have a prominent Iowa Republican defect from Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign and swing behind the Texan during the 2012 race for the Republican nomination. The answer back to Fusaro is "I don't know anything about that."
A few seconds later, Fusaro raises the subject of Benton's current job.
"I'm doing something else, man. 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."
Paul's Senate term is on the ballot in 2016, which is also a presidential election year. Benton said Paul could run for re-election, or possibly run both for re-election and the Republican nomination for the White House.