For months, Jim Bunning has insisted that he would run for re-election for sure; again and again, NRSC chairman John Cornyn and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to acknowledge Bunning’s statements and pretended that the Senator had still to make up his mind. That provoked outbursts of anger from Bunning, who denounced McConnell, called Cornyn “deaf,” accused him of not understanding English and even threatened to sue the NRSC for suggesting that that they might not back his re-election bid!
In fact, Bunning was so insistent that he finally managed to convince me! Last month, I wrote that, “When a Senator threatens to sue his own caucus’s electoral committee, we have no choice but to believe him… we should stop treating Kentucky like a probable open seat.” Yet, in this increasingly tense standoff, the Kentucky Senator blinked first and finally opened the door to a 2010 retirement.
Says a new Roll Call story, “But after stressing repeatedly that he will run again in 2010, Bunning seemed to leave the door open to not seeking re-election on Tuesday, saying that he will make a decision on whether to stay in the Senate race within the next few months.”
Bunning must be slowly realizing just how much his party can do to hinder his ability to seek re-election. Roll Call documents Bunning’s fellow Republicans’ reluctance to get anywhere near the Senator. “He is the only [Republican] candidate for U.S. Senate who has announced,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield. “So, at this point, I’m supporting him.” What a ringing endorsement!
By continually sending off such messages, the GOP establishment is trying to harass Bunning into retirement; they are looking to exhaust him with constant underhanded insults so that the Senator finally gives up the fight. And all this pressure is clearly getting to Bunning, who is sounding increasingly despaired. “When they recruit someone to run against you in a primary, it puts doubt in people’s minds that you are going to finish the race,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “Therefore, they’re waiting and waiting and waiting. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
If Bunning did not have a history of radicalism and offensive statements, we could almost feel sorry for him: He has truly become the unpopular kid no one wants to play with during recess. Worse still, time is not on his side; he has a long way to go before the NRSC is forced to accept that he is indeed running for re-election. And his delivering comments like “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy” will only make him look more vulnerable and lead his critics to apply more pressure.
In fact, even those who pretend to be acting in Bunning’s best interest are contributing to asphyxiate the Senator. Kentucky’s Secretary of State Trey Grayson recently declared that he will not challenge Bunning (”his friend and mentor”) in the Republican primary but that he would run for sure if Bunning retired. By clarifying his intentions, Grayson signaled to his “friend and mentor” that he is already preparing his succession - and this despite Bunning’s insistence that he would run for re-election.
If Grayson truly wanted to help the Senator, why would he announce his plans for a scenario Bunning was trying his best to dismiss as impossible? Why would he make the NRSC even more desperate to push Bunning out since the Secretary of State would quite clearly be a stronger general election nominee?
These harassment tactics are not just psychological. Without actually calling for his retirement, Cornyn and McConnell can signal to GOP donors that they would rather they not contribute to Bunning’s campaign; and the fact that McConnell also represents Kentucky gives him a fair amount of control over the state’s fundraising networks. After all, why would a Kentucky conservative businessman donate to Bunning when that would risk angering the state’s more powerful Senator?
This is exactly what Bunning suggested this week in a conference call with reporters. “We’re finding it more difficult to raise money because of McConnell and Cornyn,” he said. “My senior Senator also sent out his first mailing for 2014. … I refrained from doing it [while McConnell was running for re-election last cycle]. He sent out his, so you know where he stands.”
Bunning’s comments suggest that he is preparing to announce mediocre fundraising numbers for the first quarter of 2009. Remember that one of the main reasons retirement rumors started swirling was Bunning’s dismal financial report as of the end of 2008. That Bunning is already trying to argue his way out of another such report is not a good sign for his political future.