The question that kept occurring to me while watching the bizarre saga surrounding Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson this week was this: Why would anybody bother shaking down presidential candidates under the table when so many over-the-table methods are available?

For those just tuning in to the Sorenson scandal, this is the guy who chaired Michele Bachmann’s 2012 Iowa presidential campaign until he suddenly announced, six days before the Iowa Caucuses, that he was switching his allegiance to Ron Paul. Though not an earthshaking event, Sorenson’s switch did contribute to the sense of momentum that led Paul to a very strong third place finish in the Caucuses (Paul later picked up a majority of the actual Iowa Delegation to the GOP Convention, along with control of the state party apparatus, but that’s another story). But it more notably led to some angry intra-GOP words, as Bachmann publicly accused Sorenson of switching sides for money.

Later on, Bachmann was hit with allegations that she had illegally compensated the self-same Kent Sorenson to serve as her campaign chairman–allegations that are still pending before the House Ethics Committee. Some wags probably thought her angry attacks on Sorenson after he switched were motivated not by outrage that he’d been bought, but that he had sold the same goods twice, refusing to stay bought.

It now seems she had a point, as the conservative website The Iowa Republican (apparently via leaks from a disgruntled Paulite) rolled out evidence this week, including emails and a recording of a phone conversation, that Sorenson had indeed solicited and seemed to have received cash for his endorsement. The story’s destructive power seems to be burgeoning, since one of the Paulites embroiled in the payola allegations is Jesse Benton, who is currently Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager. Now Benton was already having a bad day because an audiotape of a conversation he had with former Paulite associate Dennis Fusaro–the same dude who’s speaking to Sorenson on the leaked tape from Iowa–was leaked by Fusaro, in which Benton said he was “holding his nose” to work for Mitch in order to help Rand’s presidential prospects for 2016.

Quite a soap opera, eh? Aside from the specific content of all these leaked tapes, it’s reasonably clear a lot of hash is being settled–between various Paulite factions, of course, but also involving the white-hot grievances of various Iowa Republicans against the Paulites controlling the state GOP.

But at The Iowa Republican, right at the center of this saga, Craig Robinson is now afraid the whole mess could kill the golden goose:

As I looked over and analyzed all of the information that we would be releasing throughout the week, I not only realized that this was a story of national importance, but I also knew that it could damage Iowa’s reputation and First-in-the-Nation status.

He cited a Rachel Maddow feature on the scandal as illustrative of the possible collateral damage he had helped inflict:

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Maddow very efficiently presented the various aspects of the Iowa Caucuses that make the Sorenson shenanigans appear to be no more than the tip of the iceberg, and challenged the state’s political leaders to explain, once more, why they of all people should have such disproportionate power over the presidential nominating process.

But that leads us right back to the question I posed at the beginning of the post. There are a vast number of entirely legal and non-secret ways that Iowa pols and activists can derive personal benefit from their role in the Caucuses. Presidential campaigns pour vast amounts of money, long before any particular Caucuses, into local campaigns, activist organizations, the state party, favored vendors, redundant staff, and probably all sorts of activities I don’t know about. Explicit or implicit shakedowns are happening all the time. Indeed, Bachmann claims Sorenson told her with respect to the offers he was allegedly receiving from the Paul campaign: “Everyone sells out in Iowa; what shouldn’t I?”

Still the question remains: Why did Sorenson insist on cash money, particularly in a state whose tolerance for informal influence-peddling is counterbalanced by a harsh intolerance for actual graft?

I dunno, but the guy is sure taking down an awful lot of people with him, and the kind of arguments Maddow is making about the whole Iowa show are only going to be asked more often.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.