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McConnell campaign manager: I'm 'holding my nose' for the next two years

The campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted Thursday that he remains “100 percent” committed to his boss’ re-election effort after a recording surfaced suggesting otherwise.

Snagging Jesse Benton, a former acolyte of both Ron and Rand Paul, has long been seen as one of the biggest assets for McConnell in his re-election bid, as he seeks to mend fences with conservative voters in the state.

But Benton, now McConnell’s campaign manager for his 2014 re-election bid, sounded less than thrilled by the pairing, according to a recording published by EconomicPolicyJournal.com. Instead, he said he saw helping the Kentucky Republican as a way to boost his former boss’ 2016 presidential hopes.

Jesse Benton, arrives at a campaign event honoring veterans at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, on Dec. 28, 2011. On Sept., 13, 2012, Benton was hired by Senate Republican leader Mitch Mc Connell to oversee his re-election campaign. Charles Dharapak / AP

“Between you and me, I’m kind of holding my nose for two years, because what we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in ‘16. So, that’s my long vision,” Benton says in the Jan. 9, 2013 call with Dennis Fusaro, a onetime Paul aide. Fusaro says he recorded the call.

McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore responded with a statement from Benton, saying he was fully behind McConnell’s re-election:

“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.”

Benton, who is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter, was Rand Paul’s campaign manager in his 2010 Kentucky Senate race and was a chair for the elder Paul’s 2012 presidential bid. He is now working to help Sen. McConnell face off against Tea Party-backed businessman Matt Bevin in the GOP primary, and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in a general election.

Fusaro also went public this week with allegations that an conservative Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson dropped his support for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann ahead of last year’s Iowa caucuses and backed Paul after seeking payments from Paul’s campaign in exchange for his endorsement. Fursaro provided the emails to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, but Sorenson has said he didn’t partake in any of these conversations.

Fusaro, who worked with Benton on Paul’s 2008 presidential race as the Texas congressman’s national field director, told MSNBC that he decided to release the audio after Benton had denied any knowledge of payments to Sorenson.

“It’s not sick, it’s protection and verification,” Fusaro said in reaction to Benton’s statement. “What kind of a guy would get on the phone and tell somebody, ‘Hey, I’m taking my boss’s money but I think he stinks.’”

Bevin’s campaign seized on Benton’s past comments as evidence Republicans in the commonwealth were moving away from the GOP leader who has represented the Bluegrass State for nearly three decades.

“Even Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, thinks something stinks with the Mitch McConnell campaign,” said Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand. “His admission that he is ‘holding (his) nose for two years’ while he works for McConnell shows that even McConnell’s top guy realizes that his boss is not a true conservative, and after nearly 30 years of voting for big-government and big-spending bills, does not deserve to be reelected. Fortunately, Kentucky voters have a real conservative in this race that all Republicans can be proud to support–Matt Bevin.”