Perhaps the worst kept secret in Republican Senate politics is that they are silently and not so subtly urging Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky to retire, or encourage a primary challenger. Now it looks like Bunning and his friend and fellow Kentuckian in the Senate Mitch McConnell have had a falling out.
Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) political career began to deteriorate this week after he apologized for making insensitive remarks about a sitting Supreme Court justice and then threatened to sue his own party if it forced him to retire.
While his public missteps may have damaged his reelection chances for the moment, perhaps more troubling is the distance that appears to be developing between Bunning and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Once considered best friends in the chamber, their relationship has soured as many harbor the belief that Bunning is not the best candidate to keep the seat in GOP hands, according to Senate sources.
A spokesman for McConnell said the Republican leader “considers Sen. Bunning a close friend and a respected member of his caucus, and they continue to work closely on issues of great importance to their constituents.”
Bunning declined to comment for this article.
Democrats have targeted Bunning, an irascible member of the chamber and former Hall of Fame pitcher, in the next cycle. New GOP polling shows him down in a hypothetical match-up against a Democratic challenger, according to a GOP source.
Republican strategists are desperate to avoid a reprise of the 2007 gubernatorial race, in which an unpopular GOP incumbent — Ernie Fletcher, who became ensnared in scandal — refused to step down and lost the governor’s mansion to Democrats.
Bunning is planning a vigorous defense of his seat. He is in the midst of hiring campaign staff and scheduling fundraisers and plans to raise $10 million for his reelection.
Campaign records show that his campaign has only $150,000 and that he raised a mere $27,000 in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Bunning has implied that he held back on fundraising to give McConnell, who faced a difficult reelection himself last year, uncontested access to GOP donors in Kentucky. This has made McConnell’s fading support all the more painful, said one Senate lawmaker.
Bunning dodged a bullet in 2004, in a red state like Kentucky during a much friendlier political environment for the GOP. At this point, any pragmatist, especially one who has had a career as long as Bunning, would probably take one for the team and step aside to help his party retain the seat. But if Bunning is as stubborn about this as the article says and he stays in the race, it will make for a nasty spat inside Kentucky and national GOP circles, and mean one more potential seat the Republicans will have to spend time and money defending to hold off a 60-seat Democratic supermajority in the Senate for the last two years of Barack Obama’s first term.