Bluegrass Brawl

Bunning Says He’s In; Who Else Is?

Posted January 14, 2009 at 6:01pm

When it comes to the question of whether Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) will seek a third term in 2010, it seems hard for the Hall of Fame former Major League Baseball pitcher to be more clear.

“Barring an unusual occurrence … like death … I’ll run,” Bunning said in a conference call with reporters in late November.

And yet, somehow retirement rumors continue to persist when it comes to the 77-year-old junior Senator from the Bluegrass State.

Maybe it’s because Bunning is certain to be in for a tough campaign this cycle. The Senator barely survived his 2004 re-election against now-Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D), who is interested in challenging the Senator again. And recent public polls have shown Bunning is less popular than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who found himself in a closer-than-anticipated race in 2008 that he eventually won by 6 points.

Not long after Bunning talked with reporters in November about his election plans, a SurveyUSA poll showed his approval rating at 43 percent. The same poll put McConnell’s rating at 47 percent.

Following a spate of early retirements by four Republican Senators — including in the past week Sens. George Voinovich (Ohio) and Kit Bond (Mo.), who are both close friends with Bunning as well as younger than the Kentucky Senator — questions about Bunning’s 2010 plans have begun to crop up again on Capitol Hill.

Republican operatives have sought to spin the argument that the early announcements are overall more helpful than harmful, and privately some party insiders admit that a retirement announcement from the irascible Bunning might improve prospects for holding the seat.

Maybe the best way for Bunning to finally put the questions to rest will be to demonstrate his commitment to running again with his campaign account. A good showing on his year-end fundraising report, due to be filed on Jan. 31, would certainly make National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) happy.

Just a week into the 111th Congress, Cornyn has been warning Republican Senators that they need to spend extensive time fundraising and traveling their states to put together winning campaigns.

At an NRSC press conference on Wednesday, Cornyn said he has been working to send out the message that “you better get ready. … And if you’re not prepared for what you’re going to experience in 2010 then perhaps you ought to rethink your commitment to running again.”

At the end of the third quarter of 2008, Bunning had just $175,000 in his Senate campaign account. In comparison, McConnell ended 2006 — when he was two years out from his 2008 election — with nearly $3 million. The Minority Leader needed all that money, and a whole lot more, to secure his re-election last year against wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford (D).

“McConnell raised close to $20 million. I wonder if Bunning can do north of $10 million,” Kentucky Democratic strategist Jim Cauley said. “This seat will be in play and we’ve got a very good shot of taking it.”

But if, in the end, Bunning does decide to step down rather than run again, it will be interesting to see if Democrats become more or less optimistic about taking the seat.

One Republican mentioned as a potential candidate if Bunning leaves the Senate is Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a rising star in state GOP circles.

Like most any successful Republican in Kentucky, Grayson, who is not yet 40, can claim McConnell as a close supporter and mentor who has helped guide Grayson’s political career. Another possible candidate for an open Senate seat is Rep. Geoff Davis (R), who hails from the northern 4th district. If Davis were to run for Senate, Grayson would be a natural candidate to run in the 4th.

But even as they get excited about their chances this cycle in Kentucky, the Democratic field is still very much in flux. Mongiardo is just one of several well-known Democrats being mentioned for the race. Others include Rep. Ben Chandler, Attorney General Jack Conway and state Auditor Crit Luallen.

Chandler is probably the party’s top choice for the seat and he could easily clear the field. But the seriousness of his interest in running remains a question mark, and he continues to play his cards close to the vest.

“Right now I am focused on trying to address our economic situation and help people who are struggling in the district and the country as a whole,” Chandler said in a statement through his spokeswoman on Wednesday. “I may have something to say in the future, but I think that right now it is just too early for me to comment in any meaningful way about the 2010 race.”

One Kentucky Democratic insider said this week that if Chandler wanted the nomination, “it would be his. There would be no primary. If he doesn’t, I think you’re looking at a primary of two or three candidates with Mongiardo being one of them.”

A multi-candidate primary would probably include either Luallen or Conway, but insiders don’t believe both will run.

Luallen is a popular figure in Kentucky who briefly considered challenging McConnell during the 2008 cycle.

In 2002, at age 33, Conway, who was then a Cabinet secretary to then-Gov. Paul Patton (D), ran in Kentucky’s 3rd district against then-Rep. Anne Northup (R). He spent more than $1.5 million on the race to Northup’s $3.2 million and lost by just 7,300 votes.

Still, with Kentucky being a top target for Democrats in 2010, it is highly plausible that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, led by Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), could step in to help sort out the primary field. One of the strengths of Menendez’s predecessor, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), was his ability to intervene in primaries so the party got the strongest possible nominee.