Cathy Bailey, the former U.S. ambassador to Latvia, is joining a growing list of Republicans flirting with entering the 2010 U.S. Senate race despite incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Bunning's insistence that he's seeking re-election.
Bailey, a Louisville-based philanthropist, fund-raiser and charity organizer, told the Herald-Leader she is considering making her first run for public office, even if Bunning remains in the race.
"I think the Republican Party is strong enough to undergo a conversation about which person is best to represent us on the ballot in 2010," she said. "That's the interest I have, whether it's Jim Bunning or other people or whether it's Cathy Bailey."
Bailey served as chairwoman of Republican presidential nominee John McCain's campaign in Kentucky and has spearheaded fund-raising efforts for former President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Bailey achieved the fund-raising status of "ranger" for Bush's 2000 campaign, meaning she raised more than $200,000 in the race. In 2005, Bush appointed her ambassador to Latvia, where she served until 2008.
Bailey said she respects Bunning for the conservative positions he has taken on issues.
"He's always voted on the right side, as far as I'm concerned," she said. "But politics have changed over the last six years, and my party is going through what I would call a health debate."
Bailey also said she considers another potential GOP candidate, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, to be a rising star who has established his political credentials with two statewide wins. Grayson last week announced that he had formed an exploratory committee for the U.S. Senate race.
Bunning confirmed to reporters Tuesday that Grayson did so with his blessing.
"I suggested it to Trey at the Fourth District Lincoln Day dinner because he is a friend and because this is a way for him to travel the state and raise money," Bunning told reporters. "This can carry over past this U.S. Senate race. Trey has given me his assurance this was the case."
Bunning cautioned that his support of Grayson's exploratory committee does not mean that the junior senator is ready to drop his own bid.
An early test of potential candidates' support will be collecting money, said Bailey, who just organized a Kentucky Derby-related fund-raising event for her charity Operation Open Arms, which helps care for children whose mothers are in prison.
Bailey said she hasn't set a deadline for her decision. And even though Bailey – who is married to Irving Bailey, the former chairman and CEO of Providian Corp. – can afford to invest personal funds into a race, she said grass-roots fund-raising is a crucial barometer for a candidate.
Bailey said a candidate's exploratory committee should raise at least $500,000 in its first quarter of activity.
"Anybody interested would probably have to raise that," she said. "Practically, I'm looking at the clock. You don't have to file until January 2010, but the clock is ticking."
One Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, already raised more than $400,000 after announcing he would run earlier this spring. Last month, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway announced his candidacy.
Meanwhile, Bunning on Tuesday launched his harshest attack yet on McConnell, whom Bunning formerly had praised and thanked for helping him narrowly win re-election in 2004 over Mongiardo.
Bunning slammed McConnell, the Senate minority leader, for the state of the dwindled Republican caucus.
"Under our dynamic leadership of our leader, we have gone from 55 to 40 (Senate seats) in two cycles ... we will end up with about 36 after this cycle," Bunning said on a conference call. "So if leadership means anything, it means you don't lose 19 seats if you're leading."
Bunning also criticized the GOP leadership's courting of political moderate Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Last week, Specter switched to the Democratic Party — a move Bunning called "selfish".
"Do you know Arlen Specter will be 80, has had four bouts with cancer, and he still wants to run for the U.S. Senate?" Bunning said. "I'm being criticized at 77 and healthy for wanting to run for the U.S. Senate by certain leadership people in my party. Give me a break."
After an abysmal first quarter of fund-raising, Bunning says his second quarter fund-raising has picked up significantly. He also plans to meet with John Weaver, Arizona Sen. John McCain's former top strategist, to discuss the Kentucky race.
Bunning is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent in the 2010 cycle.
He acknowledged Tuesday that 2010 will be a difficult cycle for all Republicans.
He said he knows he's facing an uphill battle and is prepared to reassess his chances in July.
"I'm not going to walk into 2010 with less than $1 million when I know it will take $7 million to run against the winner of Democratic primary," he said.