For the past few months, all eyes have been on Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, with most people assuming that the Kentucky Senator does not seriously intend to run for re-election despite his unequivocal early December statement that he will do so.
There have been too many incumbents who insisted they would run before reversing themselves for us to take Bunning’s declaration at face-value. Think, for instance, of Pete Domenici, the New Mexico Senator who denied retirement rumors for months, only to announce his retirement just when people had started to believe he would actually run again. Think, also, of John Doolittle, the California representative who the GOP desperately wanted to see retire; he called it quits last January after insisting he would never even consider doing so.
Yet, the time has come to entertain the option that Bunning actually intends to run in 2010 and that all the rumors that are circulating about the probability that he will retire are being circulated by Republican operatives who want to put pressure on the Senator. (That Bunning is the most vulnerable incumbent of the 2010 cycle is due to his lack of stature rather to the national environment or to his state’s evolution; this makes him into the rare incumbent whose party wants to see retire)
1. Bunning’s insistence
Senators like Domenici who announce that they will run even though they have not made final plans rarely go to great length to deceive analysts. They are typically content denying retirement rumors and seeing where things go.
Bunning, on the other hand, constantly reminds journalists that he is in the race to win. At some point, we need to take this seriously - especially when the Senator goes as far as take on his own party’s leadership for suggesting that he had not fully made up his mind!
Last week, Kentucky’s other Senator Mitch McConnell was asked whether Bunning would seek re-election in 2010; the Minority Leader answered he did not know - and that did not please Bunning, who immediately came out swinging. McConnell “had a lapse of memory… when he said he didn’t know what my intentions were,” Bunning said. “Whatever Mitch says is whatever he says. He’s the leader of the pack and he can say whatever he wants and get away with it.”
Combined with the clear signs delivered by Republican leaders (led by McConnell) that they would like to see Bunning retire, these combative words suggest that Bunning is dead serious about a 2010 run and that he is accusing his own party of trying to undermine him. That could make for very interesting fireworks over the next few months!
2. There is no scandal
Doolittle was ultimately forced to retire because of the corruption investigation that was looking increasingly threatening; it was hard for him to argue that his Republican colleagues were just out to get him when new revelations were coming out daily about the allegations he was facing.
Yet, no such scandal is threatening Bunning. That makes it far more difficult for Republicans to convince the Senator that he is a drag on their chances to hold the seat; and it also means that we should not expect damaging information to come out and force Bunning to retire (which is what happened to Doolittle in 2008 and to Bob Ney in 2006).
3. What about Bunning’s weak fundraising?
Those who argue that Bunning should not be taken seriously point to his dismal fundraising: As of the end of 2008, he has less than $150,000 in the bank. That is not the behavior of someone who plans to run for re-election, especially when that incumbent knows he is endangered.
Yet, Bunning offered an explanation as to his weak fundraising. “For two years Sen. McConnell had a broom out and swept the state of Kentucky. For two years I did not hold a fund-raiser in the Commonwealth of Kentucky because I knew how important McConnell’s race was,” he said. In other words, Bunning held off from tapping Kentucky’s GOP networks between 2006 and 2008 in order to not undermine McConnell’s re-election race.
Bunning seems to have a rational enough explanation that Republicans should be worried that he might be sincere (though his explanation does not account for his lack of fundraising between early November to the end of December). And whether or not we believe Bunning, the result is the same: He is woefully unprepared for what is to come, and he has already drawn a top-tier challenger who has started raising money.)
4. Can Republicans do anything?
Democrats would still be competitive if Bunning were to retire, but there is no doubt that they would prefer facing the incumbent. As I explained above, few people thought they would be lucky enough to get their wish - but such a scenario is looking increasingly plausible.
This leads to one last question: Can Republicans do anything to stop this besides trying to convince Bunning to call it quits? After all, as demonstrated by Bunning’s decision to slam McConnell, the incumbent is not taking well to the pressure he is receiving.
The most obvious path for the GOP to block Bunning is through a primary, but this is a very unlikely scenario. The state’s Republican bench is rather thin, and none of the possible contenders have shown any indication of eying a statewide run. The 2011 gubernatorial race is a far more attractive option for Kentucky’s ambitious Republicans.
The only path left for the Republican establishment is to pressure Bunning into retirement by cutting off financial support. For instance, McConnell could signal that he wants GOP donors to hold off from contributing to Bunning’s campaign - and this would put the incumbent in such an untenable position that he would have no choice but to call it quits.
This could certainly work, but it could also dramatically backfire: If a financially squeezed Bunning nevertheless remains in the race, the consequences would be disastrous for Senate Republicans.
Update: And the saga continues! Today, it was NRSC Chairman John Cornyn who offered this stunning quote: “I don’t think he’s made a decision on whether to run. We’re working with Sen. Bunning now to provide him all the information he needs in order to make that decision.” Responded Bunning: “He’s either deaf or he didn’t listen very well.” Republicans are really desperate for Bunning to leave, and Bunning is having none of it.