Politics & Government

After months of tension, Kentucky's Bunning steps aside

KRT US NEWS STORY SLUGGED: BBO-STEROIDS KRT PHOTO BY CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT (March 17) WASHINGTON, DC -- U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, testifies during a hearing by the House Government Affairs Committee looking into the use of steroids among major league baseball players. (gsb) 2005
KRT US NEWS STORY SLUGGED: BBO-STEROIDS KRT PHOTO BY CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT (March 17) WASHINGTON, DC -- U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, testifies during a hearing by the House Government Affairs Committee looking into the use of steroids among major league baseball players. (gsb) 2005 Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — For months, Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning bemoaned the state of his re-election war chest and blamed his fellow Kentuckian, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas for casting doubt about whether Bunning would stay in the race.

Even in the face of mounting political pressure, Bunning, who as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers famously ignored catchers' signs when they came from the manager, vowed to stay in.

Now, he's out.

Bunning announced Monday that he's ending his bid for a third term, bringing to a close a multimonth-long saga that pitted the 77-year-old Hall of Famer against a Republican leadership that sent strong signals that he should step aside for the good of the party.

"Unfortunately, running for office is not just about the issues," Bunning said in a statement Monday. "To win a general election, a candidate has to be able to raise millions of dollars to get the message out to voters. Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fundraising.

"The simple fact is that I have not raised the funds necessary to run an effective campaign for the U.S. Senate," Bunning said. "For this reason, I will not be a candidate for re-election in 2010."

For the better part of the year, speculation swirled that Bunning, who over the past three months raised $302,467 for his re-election campaign, eventually would have to quit the race.

Bunning raised about half the amount that his political protege and potential Republican challenger Trey Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state, raised in the same period. Of the four top contenders for Bunning's seat, the incumbent raised the least during the second quarter of the year. Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway says he pulled in $1.32 million, compared with $602,699 for Grayson and $302,993 for Democratic Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo.

Money woes weren't Bunning's only problems, however. The tension between Bunning and McConnell grew palpable.

At public events, the two Kentucky senators kept a cool and cordial distance. From their respective corners, however, the two men sparred.

McConnell publicly questioned "who the players are going to be in Kentucky" and, according to Bunning, during a December meeting the minority leader told the state's junior senator that he was "too old to run for re-election."

"McConnell treats friends like some people treat Pampers — disposable," said Lexington attorney Larry Forgy, who's a friend of Bunning's. "I'm sorry he treated Bunning this way, doing everything he could to keep campaign money from coming his way."

McConnell was politic on Monday.

"Jim has enjoyed two Hall of Fame-worthy careers, and I am honored to have worked by his side in the Senate for the past several years," McConnell said in a statement. "His steadfast focus on serving the people of the commonwealth has been as unwavering as his conservative ideals. Kentucky is a far better place because of his service."

Bunning also accused the National Republican Senatorial Committee of trying to court primary challengers when members of that group met with state Senate President David Williams in February. Cornyn said the meeting was a "courtesy visit" and that the party would back Bunning in a contested primary.

On Monday, Cornyn was laudatory.

"For over 20 years, Senator Jim Bunning has been a principled leader in Congress who has served his state and its people well," Cornyn said in a statement. "He has always been a leader who has put Kentucky first."

The outcome of the Kentucky race will have national implications. Many political analysts consider the U.S. Senate race in the Republican-leaning state a toss-up.

In 2010, the Republican Party, which currently has 40 Senate seats, will have to defend 19 of those. Several Republicans, including Mel Martinez of Florida, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Kit Bond of Missouri, have announced that they won't seek re-election in 2010. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is running for governor in Texas in 2010.

Over the past two elections, Republicans lost 13 Senate and 51 House seats. The party's base is shrinking as a percentage of the overall vote, and Democratic voter registration is on the rise.

Grayson, 37, and a rising star in the Republican Party, is widely seen the GOP's best hope of keeping the seat. The Democrats, on the other hand, may have a much more contentious primary field to clear.

"Let's see what Grayson can do now that Bunning isn't there," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report. "My guess is that he’s going to find things get easier for him. The NRSC can now help him and he can get some national money."

(Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader contributed to this article.)

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