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Bunning Continues to Dig In

Although he’s been nudged by some in the Senate GOP leadership to retire, Sen. Jim Bunning (R) is firmly committed to running for re-election in 2010. Those close to Kentucky’s irascible junior Senator said that while he ramped up his fundraising only in the past couple of weeks, he actually decided to run early last fall.

Despite a public spat with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), Bunning’s relationship with the rest of his fellow GOP Senators appears unchanged: He’s friends with just few, but those relationships remain intact.

Bunning’s allies outside of the Senate insisted he is not running for re-election to spite Cornyn or anyone else in the GOP leadership, but rather because he still wants to serve, particularly at a time of national crisis.

According to one Republican who has followed Bunning’s political career, the Senator expressed incredulity as early as last fall when rumors of his supposed retirement first began to surface. “People say I’m not running. I’m running,— this source recalls Bunning saying. “As long as I’m healthy and [my wife] Mary is healthy, I’m running. I worked too hard for this seat to give it up to— Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D).

Requests to interview Bunning or his chief of staff were declined. Mongiardo has already announced his Senate candidacy.

In addition to Cornyn, there have been indications that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is concerned about Bunning’s 2010 chances, particularly because he has banked very little campaign cash with less than two years until the election.

McConnell, Bunning’s seatmate, spent about $20 million to secure a fifth term last fall. But Bunning reported only $150,000 in cash on hand on his 2008 year-end Federal Election Commission report, and he is expected to be highly targeted by the Democrats next year.

McConnell’s office has declined to confirm or deny whether the Minority Leader is worried about Bunning’s race. But senior Republican leadership aides have repeatedly contended that no rift exists between the Kentucky Republicans, or between Bunning and anyone else in the Conference leadership save for Cornyn. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a longtime ally of Bunning’s, affirmed that assessment.

“He’s from Kentucky, and is one of my best friends, and that’s a pretty good start,— Kyl said when asked about Bunning’s relationship with the Republican leadership specifically and the Conference generally.

Bunning recently blew up at Cornyn after the NRSC chairman suggested that Bunning might retire. Cornyn has since backed off, but many Republicans remain concerned about Bunning’s chances.

Kentucky political operatives close to McConnell questioned Bunning’s viability in an election cycle that could be another tough one for the GOP. They argued that Bunning doesn’t have a statewide political operation at the ready, let alone one capable of winning a tough race in a political environment that remains treacherous for Republicans.

Additionally, Bunning has not accrued the kind of political capital he’ll need to withstand the onslaught of Democratic money expected to pour into the state from sources such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the political strategists said. Most of Bunning’s relationships are based in Northern Kentucky, with his reputation in the rest of the state defined as much by his public temper tantrums as by anything else.

To prove their point, these operatives noted that Bunning barely won re-election in 2004, a strong year for the Republican Party.

“He’s always been viewed as crotchety and cranky,— one GOP consultant based in Kentucky said. “That’s not to say he’s a bad Senator. But he’s never done anything to inspire a loyal statewide operation.—

Bunning loyalists disputed those arguments, noting that the 78-year-old Hall of Fame pitcher and former House Member has always found a way to win. Although it is unclear when Bunning plans to formally announce his bid for a third term, he has moved aggressively in recent weeks to raise money.

Two fundraisers were held last week alone, with several more planned in the coming weeks, both in Washington, D.C., and in Kentucky. Bunning has been criticized for not moving last year to beef up his campaign account, but his allies insist he refrained from raising money earlier out of respect for McConnell, who found himself in a dogfight to secure his 2008 race.

The Republican source who spoke with Bunning about the Senator’s plans to run for re-election last fall said the Senator’s re-election steering committee meeting in January was attended by 35 to 40 people. A second GOP source close to Bunning said the Senator has a campaign team in place and ready to go, and that all that is left is for him to do is pull the trigger.

“Jim has always been one that knows what it takes to win,— said attorney Rick Robinson, his close friend and former Capitol Hill aide. “He always knows how to get there.—

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