The 2016 Vote
|Alexandra Jaffe||September 3rd 2014|
The bribery scandal surrounding former Rep. Ron Paulâ€™s (R-Texas) 2012 presidential bid is threatening to damage his sonâ€™s 2016 White House prospects.
The saga took down Sen. Rand Paulâ€™s (R-Ky.) likely campaign manager, Jesse Benton, who was running Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellâ€™s (R-Ky.) reelection bid. And the implications of wrongdoing two years ago could still further trickle down and hobble the younger Paulâ€™s developing presidential campaign apparatus.
Benton, a longtime aide to both Pauls, resigned Friday from the GOP Senate leaderâ€™s campaign amid controversy sparked by former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorensonâ€™s admission in court that he accepted tens of thousands of dollars from representatives associated with Paulâ€™s and Rep. Michele Bachmannâ€™s (R-Minn.) campaigns for his endorsement.
Benton ran Ron Paulâ€™s campaign at the time of the alleged bribe, and emails and a phone conversation leaked earlier this year suggest he was aware of, and even engaged in, the scheme. At one point, Sorenson said, â€œI know Jesse knows.â€
In his Friday statement, Benton repeatedly asserted his innocence and said media reports tying him to the bribery are inaccurate.
While his swift departure was meant to minimize damage for McConnellâ€™s campaign, itâ€™s unclear how it could impact his role in a Rand Paul bid.
A week ago, before the Sorenson charges, Benton told The Hill when asked about his plans for 2016 that â€œwhatever happens, Iâ€™ll be there for Paul.â€
On Tuesday, Benton didnâ€™t respond to questions about whether those plans had changed, and Doug Stafford, who heads up Rand Paulâ€™s political operation and political action committee, also wouldnâ€™t say whether Benton would stay on the Paul political team.
Kentucky Tea Party activist David Adams, who worked on Rand Paulâ€™s 2010 campaign with Benton before leaving in July to lead a governorâ€™s race, said there is â€œzero indicationâ€ anything inappropriate was going on with Paulâ€™s Senate race. But he admitted it was â€œpretty hard for [the bribery] to not lead backâ€ to Benton.
â€œIâ€™m surprised at what apparently has happened under the Ron Paul campaign and that amount of money. Thereâ€™s not a lot of plausible deniability to go around at the very top of the campaign other than perhaps the candidate,â€ said Adams, who has been critical of McConnell and Benton before.
Iowa GOP strategist Tim Albrecht said the investigation could even lead back to Rand Paul, who was a prolific surrogate for his father in 2012 and is close to Benton.
â€œI canâ€™t imagine that this investigation begins and ends with a rural state senator from Iowa. Obviously the documents with Sorensonâ€™s testimony suggest that the investigation is probably going into some larger legal territory with Bachmann, with Ron Paul and, to whatever extent heâ€™s tied to his fatherâ€™s campaign, to Rand Paul,â€ he said.
Regardless of whether thereâ€™s a smoking gun linking Benton to the bribery, Paul will likely have to answer for the allegations if he runs in 2016, simply because of his close ties to his fatherâ€™s campaign apparatus and ideological platform.
Katon Dawson, who worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2012 and is still his liaison in South Carolina, said that Ron Paul has always been Randâ€™s â€œgreatest asset, and biggest problem.â€
â€œHis son has inherited that ability [to appeal to libertarians] and that donor list, but when you inherit that you inherit these types of problems,â€ the Palmetto State GOP strategist said. â€œYou own a part of it, you own all of it.â€
Dawson said Paul now has to make a decision about whether to keep Benton on his political team â€” and until Paul weighs in, the scandal is â€œgoing to have some legs to it.â€
Severing ties with Benton would mean the loss of a key figure in the Paul family political network who has strong ties to the libertarian and conservative movements, and it still might not be enough to insulate Paul from questions about the scandal.
Paulâ€™s close relationship with Benton is common knowledge â€” the latter reportedly moved into Paulâ€™s basement in 2010 to run his Senate campaign, and is married to the senatorâ€™s niece, Valori Pyeatt, also a former campaign aide.
Ron Paulâ€™s daughter Lori Pyeatt was his 2012 campaign treasurer, and is now Bentonâ€™s mother-in-law.
Taken together, the family ties mean the scandal isnâ€™t likely to go away.
â€œWhen their campaignâ€™s up, you can be sure that voters will know of [the bribery],â€ said Dawson, the Perry aide. â€œThat will stay out there until itâ€™s completely answered and vetted.â€
The renewed controversy has also offered Democrats another point in the argument theyâ€™re building against the GOP more broadly in preparation for 2016: that the party in general is scandal-prone and unfit to lead the nation.
Michael Czin, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, sounded that theme on Friday.
â€œItâ€™s obviously troubling. There are a lot of questions that still need to be fleshed out as far as the extent of the bribery,â€ he said. â€œIt seems to be a systemic problem with the GOP, and it warrants a close look at how Republicans run their campaigns.â€
The scandal potentially linking back to Paul is the last thing he wants looming over his prospective presidential bid; two consecutive national polls out over the past two weeks have shown him dropping from a consistent first- or second-place finish to second and fourth places in the potential GOP presidential field.
Associates of Paul defended the candidate and argue the situation has unfolded long before the 2016 campaign.
â€œI think itâ€™s far enough out that itâ€™s not going to be a big factor,â€ said Fritz Wenzel, Paulâ€™s pollster. â€œFrom a polling perspective, the voters of Iowa and the voters of this country are not concerned about that as a top issue, and they wonâ€™t be when they go to choose a Republican nominee.â€
Albrecht said it was too soon to cast judgment on whether the scandal will hurt Paul, but he did note Iowa voters will certainly be interested in the saga as it unfolds.
â€œI believe that more could come out regarding this case, and what that is remains to be seen. But I think everybodyâ€™s going to be watching closely,â€ he said.
Alexandra Jaffee writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.