The overarching message of Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) newly launched presidential campaign is that he’s “a different kind of Republican.”
If you take a glance at some of the secessionists, conspiracy theorists and other people who have floated in and out of Paul’s orbit over the years, it’s clear to see there’s something to that.
Case in point: Rev. Jerry Stephenson, a local pastor who introduced Paul on Tuesday at his presidential campaign launch in Louisville, Kentucky. Speaking with journalists after the main event, Stephenson dog-whistled to those who believe President Obama is secretly a Muslim.
“In five years we’ll find out what [Obama’s] real religion is,” Stephenson said,according to BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins. The pastor added, “Once he’s out, he will ‘evolve’ like he did on gay marriage.”
Paul’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed on the pastor’s remarks.
Stephenson is far from the first person in the senator’s circle, however, to voice such a fringe belief. While it’s important to note that Paul does not endorse every potentially inflammatory comment his associates make, these personalities within the senator’s sphere could prove to be a liability to his presidential campaign.
A Paul aide who’d spent years as a pro-secessionist activist and radio shock jock flew under the radar until 2013, when he was unmasked as the “Southern Avenger.”
The conservative news site The Washington Free Beacon dug up former new media director Jack Hunter’s ties to the League of the South, a neo-Confederate group, as well as transcripts from his stint as the “Southern Avenger” on talk radio in South Carolina. As the “Southern Avenger,” Hunter wore a wrestling mask printed with the Confederate flag, commended John Wilkes Booth for having his “heart in the right place” in assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, and decried the prospect of a “non-white majority America.”
Paul defended Hunter for weeks, arguing that “he was put up as target practice for people to say he was a racist, and none of that’s true.” The senator was quick to say that he disagreed with much of Hunter’s writing and statements, though.
Hunter wasn’t the first Paul staffer who left the senator’s team because of his fringe views. In 2009, then-Senate candidate Paul’s spokesman Chris Hightower resigned after a liberal blog dug up a post from Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Hightower’s Myspace page that read “HAPPY N***ER DAY!!!” above a photo of what appeared to be a lynching.
While that comment was apparently posted by a friend of Hightower’s, the spokesman himself allegedly wrote a post referencing “Afro-Americans” and the Ku Klux Klan. Hightower’s Myspace page also contained a copy of a letter he sent to a local newspaper that praised Ron Paul and argued that the U.S. had invaded countries responsible for terror attacks.
Paul’s campaign manager at the time, David Adams, explained that Hightower resigned over the social media postings even though the “disturbing images” were posted by someone else. He also told the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper that Hightower’s comments on 9/11 shouldn’t be interpreted as justifying the terror attacks. “I think that’s a complicated situation, that there is truth on both sides,” Adams told the newspaper.
For his part, Paul said in a statement at the time that he’d “never heard a single utterance of racism from [Hightower] nor do I believe him to have any racist tendencies.”
Paul made several appearances on conspiracy theory shock jock Alex Jones’ radio show when he was a Senate candidate. Jones has described Paul as a “listener” of the show, and the Kentucky Republican once credited Jones with teaching him what he knew about the Bilderberg Group, a secretive organization of government and business leaders which the radio host believes is plotting to set up a new world order.
While Paul hasn’t appeared on Jones’ show in years, Jones continues to support the senator on the airwaves. When CNBC anchor Kelly Evans challenged Paul’s stance on mandatory vaccinations in February, Jones rushed to the senator’s defense and called Evans a “media whore” who lies to the American people.
In its early stages, Paul’s national operation employed pollster Fritz Wenzel, who’d previously worked for the senator’s 2010 campaign and the elder Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. Wenzel, aside from having a poor track record as a pollster in general, conducted surveys for the conspiracy website WND that gave credence to the debunked birther conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
“A lingering doubt about his legitimacy as president continues to dog Obama,” Wenzel wrote of one 2010 poll. “Barely half – 52 percent – said they believe that, in light of the fact he has not yet presented a long-form birth certificate that would prove he was born on U.S. soil, while 33 percent said they do not consider him to be a legitimate president … While some try to marginalize those who continue to call for Obama to release his birth certificate, it is clear many don’t think this is a settled matter.”
Paul’s presidential campaign apparently does not plan to use Wenzel as its pollster, however.
Jesse Benton, a longtime Paul family fixture, has reportedly been tapped to run a super PAC supporting the Kentucky senator. That move officially brings Benton back into Paul’s orbit after a truncated stint as the campaign manager for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) 2014 re-election effort.
Benton’s re-emergence could also prove a liability for Paul — but not because of any statements he’s made.
Benton resigned from McConnell’s campaign in August, shortly after he was reportedly subpoenaed in connection with a bribery scandal involving former Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-TX) 2012 presidential campaign. Benton was a top aide to the elder Paul’s campaign when an Iowa lawmaker, state Sen. Kent Sorenson (R), switched his endorsement from former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to the Texas congressman. Sorensen later pleaded guilty to selling his allegiance to Paul’s team for $73,000.
Benton has maintained his innocence in the whole affair. The younger Paul also vouched for his character in a December interview with local TV station WHAS.
“Jesse is honest, he’s good at politics and I don’t think he’s done anything wrong,” Paul told the news station, adding that Benton would “help” his own campaign team in the future.
As Mother Jones reported Wednesday, however, a recent delay in Sorenson’s sentencing indicates that a wider investigation may soon ensnare top Paul aides like Benton who’ve been tied to the bribery scandal.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at email@example.com.