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Illustration by Mark Hammermeister
On December 26, 2011, a week before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, an influential Republican state senator named Kent Sorenson and his wife, Shawnee, arrived at a steak house in Altoona, a suburb of Des Moines. A goateed Mr. Clean look-alike, Sorenson was a hot commodity. His deep ties to the state’s evangelical leaders and home-schooling activists made his endorsement highly sought after by GOP presidential hopefuls, particularly the second-tier contenders who had staked their campaigns on a strong Iowa showing. Sorenson had picked his horse early, signing on as Michele Bachmann’s Iowa chairman in June 2011—a coup for the Minnesota congresswoman’s upstart campaign.
Joining the Sorensons was a bespectacled political operative named Dimitri Kesari, the deputy campaign manager of Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid. As caucus day neared, Ron Paul’s campaign was surging in the polls but needed a late boost if he wanted to meet his goal of finishing in the top three.
That’s where Sorenson came in.
When the state senator left to use the restroom, Kesari produced a $25,000 check—drawn from the account of Designer Goldsmiths, a jewelry store run by his wife—and gave it to Shawnee Sorenson. Two days later, Kent Sorenson left a Bachmann campaign event, drove straight to a Ron Paul rally, and declared that he had defected.
As it turned out, Paul’s inner circle had been secretly negotiating for months to lure Sorenson away from the Bachmann campaign. In an October memo to Paul campaign manager John Tate, a Sorenson ally outlined the state senator’s demands, which included an $8,000-a-month payment for nearly a year, another $5,000-a-month check for a colleague of Sorenson’s, and a $100,000 donation to Sorenson’s political action committee. The memo explained that these payments would not only secure Sorenson’s support in the near term but also help to “build a major state-based movement that will involve far more people into a future Rand Paul presidential run.” Kesari’s $25,000 check, in other words, amounted to more than a down payment on an endorsement for Ron Paul; it was an investment in Rand Paul 2016.
The Kentucky senator officially declared his candidacy on Tuesday. With the 2016 Iowa caucuses nine months away, this scheme could become a liability for the latest Paul presidential enterprise. The Sorenson deal exploded into public view in 2013, thanks to a pair of whistleblowers from the Ron Paul and Bachmann campaigns, and the episode now hangs over Rand Paul and his inner circle like a dark cloud.