Will 'Nosegate' really hurt Mitch McConnell at the polls?

Mitch McConnell's campaign manager was caught saying he's 'holding his nose' for now in order to help Rand Paul's presidential bid later. We doubt that's enough to wound a tough campaigner with a massive war chest.

Courtesy McConnellForSenate Facebook page
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (r.) with campaign manager Jesse Benton holding his nose in this photograph on the senator's reelection campaign Facebook page.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, has been caught on tape saying he’s “holding his nose” while working for Kentucky’s Republican senior senator.

Mr. Benton’s purpose in doing a job he finds distasteful, according to the secret recording, is to cement a relationship that will help Kentucky’s Republican/libertarian junior senator, Rand Paul, in a reelection or possible presidential bid.

“What we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in ’16,” said Benton on the tape, first reported by Economic Policy Journal on Thursday.

Wow, talk about unrest in the ranks. Is “Nosegate," as pundits have labeled the affair, going to hurt Senator McConnell at the polls in 2014? After all, Kentuckians already seem dissatisfied with McConnell’s performance – polls show his favorability rating is currently negative in the state.

Some pundits say the proboscis revelation could indeed be a problem for the Senate’s GOP leader.

It’s true that political insiders are fully aware that Benton, a longtime Ron Paul and Rand Paul supporter, is more a tea party person than an establishment Republican. McConnell hired him in part to build a bridge to the tea party wing of his party.

But most voters don’t know that. And McConnell’s opponents might use Benton’s remarks to show that even McConnell’s staff thinks McConnell is inauthentic.

“It’s not that voters care about staff stuff. They don’t. But this development allows staff stuff to become indicative of McConnell trying to be something he isn’t,” writes Washington Post political analyst Chris Cillizza on “The Fix” blog.

The primary beneficiary of this gaffe is likely McConnell’s primary opponent, wealthy Louisville businessman Matt Benton, adds National Journal’s Alex Roarty.

As a tea party person himself, Mr. Bevin will try to run to McConnell’s right. He made a good first impression with a speech at Kentucky’s Fancy Farms political picnic last week, but the campaign neophyte starts far behind McConnell in terms of name recognition and statewide organization.

“It’s exactly the kind of tinder that Bevin needs to ignite his campaign,” writes Mr. Roarty.

Well, maybe. Our own view is that this is a tempest that’s as flimsy as a tissue, so to speak.

Yes, Bevin’s done well, and he's already putting up ads with the nose-holding comment. But a Wenzel Strategies poll released Aug. 1 shows him trailing McConnell by nearly 3 to 1. McConnell is hitting Bevin hard over alleged state bailouts paid to his Connecticut bell factory. “Bailout Bevin” will find out just how tough a political opponent McConnell is.

McConnell’s bigger challenge is Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, current Kentucky secretary of State. She’s running for the seat now that actress Ashley Judd opted not to seek it. The Grimes campaign this week publicized a Mellman Group poll putting her ahead of McConnell by two points. 44 to 42 percent.

With the general election  so far off, the nose remark will be a dim memory by the time voters turn their full attention to this. Kentucky is a red-leaning state, and, despite Secretary Grimes’s current lead, many election analysts still rate this as a race that’s trending toward McConnell.

McConnell is an aggressive campaigner and has a “massive” campaign war chest, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Mitt Romney won 60 percent of the vote in Kentucky last fall, and the state’s undecided voters are unlikely to break for a Democratic Senate candidate, according to Mr. Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” newsletter.

The race might be close, but “we still think McConnell is a clear favorite to win, even if it’s only by a percentage point or two. Despite the troublesome recent news for the minority leader, he is still in decent shape in our eyes,” write Sabato and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics in Charlottesville.

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