Bunning Insists He’s Running

Posted January 27, 2009 at 6:31pm

With GOP operatives on Capitol Hill privately concerned about Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) ability to win re-election in 2010, the last thing they want to do is air the idea of Bunning retiring too publicly and make the Major League Baseball Hall of Famer dig his heels in deeper.

But after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a comment at the National Press Club last week that made Bunning’s re-election plans sound ambiguous, Bunning decided to push back.

In a conference call with Kentucky reporters Tuesday morning, Bunning lashed out at his fellow Kentuckian for his “lapse of memory” in saying Bunning’s re-election plans remained up in the air.

“I had an hourlong meeting with Sen. McConnell in the first week of December in 2008, and we thoroughly discussed my candidacy for the Senate in that hour meeting in my office in Northern Kentucky — and gave him every indication that I was going to run again,” Bunning said, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. “So he either had a lapse of memory or something when speaking to the Press Club last week when he said that he didn’t know what my intentions were. He knew very well what my intentions were.”

McConnell’s office declined to comment on Bunning’s remarks Tuesday afternoon.

But Bunning’s actions seemed to only invite criticism and speculation about his desire to run again.

Bunning was conspicuously absent on Tuesday when President Barack Obama visited Senate Republicans at their weekly luncheon.

Bunning’s office said the Senator was busy working on the stimulus markup for most of the day and that during the lunch he had other meetings scheduled in his Senate office.

But his absence was noticed in GOP circles, adding further to criticism after an absence earlier this month. He was away from Capitol Hill during the first several days of the 111th Congress for what he would only describe as personal reasons.

“He’s not behaving like someone who is serious about running for election both in his public comments and by not showing up for work,” one senior Republican staffer said.

Retirement rumors have dogged the 77-year-old junior Senator from Kentucky since the 2008 cycle ended, and Bunning’s less-than-impressive fourth-quarter 2008 fundraising performance has done little to help quell that speculation.

The Senator ended December with about $150,000 in the bank. By contrast, McConnell ended 2006 — when he was two years out from his 2008 election — with nearly $3 million. Recent polls have shown Bunning is less popular than McConnell, who found himself in a hard-fought race last cycle that he eventually won by 6 points.

“You don’t have to be a political expert to know that [Bunning’s fundraising] numbers here are speaking for themselves,” one Capitol Hill Republican operative said Tuesday. “With such anemic fundraising in an expensive media environment, he’s creating more problems for himself.”

Bunning told reporters on Tuesday that he has a number of fundraisers scheduled, including one in Washington, D.C., today and two in Kentucky in April. Supporters of Bunning have also claimed that the current fiscal crisis has reinvigorated the Senator and fueled his desire to seek a third term.

If Bunning were to have a change of heart and opt for retirement, the state Republican establishment is all but certain to look to Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), a close ally of McConnell’s, as the candidate to step in and try to hold the seat for the GOP.

Democrats have Kentucky high on their list of 2010 targets and are likely to spend heavily on the race regardless of whether Bunning runs.

Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D) entered the Senate race this week, and state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) is among those also eyeing the contest.

Mongiardo, then a state Senator, came close to defeating Bunning in 2004, but he won re-election 51 percent to 49 percent.