WASHINGTON — As he faces mounting pressure from Republican leaders to reconsider his re-election bid, Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning looks increasingly like a pitcher facing down his own team.
The 77-year-old senator says he's repeatedly told Republican leadership that he plans on running in 2010 for a third term. However, both Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say they are unaware of Bunning's plans.
"I don’t think he's made a decision on whether to run," Cornyn told Politico, a Washington-based political news publication on Wednesday. "We're working with Sen. Bunning now to provide him all the information he needs in order to make that decision."
Bunning's response was characteristically blunt.
"He's either deaf or he didn't listen very well."
Bunning said he told Cornyn of his re-election plans on Tuesday — the same day Bunning told reporters McConnell must have suffered "a lapse of memory" during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington when he said he didn't know if Bunning planned to seek re-election. Bunning, who is widely considered one of the nation's most politically vulnerable GOP senators, said he told McConnell of his re-election intentions during a meeting in Bunning's office in early December.
Bunning's absence during the first busy week of Congress this year, weak fundraising and his behavior during previous elections worry Republicans who are trying to cling to the 41 seats needed to filibuster legislation they see as unfavorable. So far, three key Republicans, Florida's Mel Martinez, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Kit Bond of Missouri, have announced they will not seek re-election in 2010.
However, GOP leaders also don't want to appear as if they are bullying a veteran statesman.
"I think that they look at this race and they see Bunning is the most vulnerable incumbent up and they see that he hasn't done much to help himself," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst with the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "Anyone who got the scare he got would have built a substantial war chest. He didn't. Are they being incredibly realistic? Yes."
In the 2004 election cycle, Bunning eked out a narrow 1.4 percentage point victory against Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo, then a state senator from Eastern Kentucky and now the state’s lieutenant governor. During the 2004 campaign, Bunning said Mongiardo, an Italian-American, looked "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons."
Bunning later apologized for the statement, and the two may face off again in 2010. Along with Mongiardo, state Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Crit Luallen have been mentioned as potential candidates on the Democratic side.
The 2004 race took a toll on Bunning’s financial and political capital.
Bunning's campaign reported having about $150,000 on hand last week — much less than the $1million political experts suggest Bunning would need by the end of the first quarter in order to start his campaign on solid footing or the $10 million Bunning says he needs to mount a competitive bid.
Bunning is putting together a campaign staff, planning several fund-raisers for coming weeks and will conduct polls later this spring. He bemoans what he sees as a lack of financial support from both McConnell and national Republican fund-raising committees.
"Parties have to be strategic. They have to focus their resources where they will be most effective," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "It’s also partly a game of chicken. I think they were hoping Bunning would read the tea leaves and step aside."
In the meantime, some Kentucky lawmakers are cautious about picking sides.
"I appreciate the good relationship I have with Senator Bunning working on a number of issues important to my district," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville. "He has indicated that he is seeking re-election and I take him at his word."
Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a fellow Republican, has been mentioned as a possible candidate if Bunning does not seek re-election in 2010. Grayson considers Bunning "a friend and a mentor" and has no plans to run against him.
Grayson said, despite the political infighting, many Republicans appreciate Bunning's staunch opposition to the Federal Reserve and Treasury's handling of the nation’s economic crisis and $700 billion bailout of the financial sector.
"Those are the issues that as I talk to Republicans they are pleased that he's spoken out about," Grayson said. "His standing is solid."