NPR logo Is The GOP Looking For a New Pitcher To Relieve Bunning?

Is The GOP Looking For a New Pitcher To Relieve Bunning?

It once seemed like Jim Bunning could get anyone out. Now, Republicans may be trying to force him out. hide caption

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It would be fair to say that, no matter how you look at it, Sen. Jim Bunning has not had a good couple of weeks.

The Kentucky Republican, who is 77 and whose term expires next year, seems to be making the wrong kind of headlines with whatever he says or does, a la Alex Rodriguez. Bunning, a former baseball player himself — he's a Hall of Fame pitcher to be more precise — has been batted around lately for an assortment of reasons, almost all of them self-inflicted:

— He has made more critical comments about his own party than about the Democrats. He has taken on both fellow Kentucky GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and John Cornyn, who heads up the party's senatorial campaign committee; both have complained about Bunning's lack of fundraising for 2010 and questioned whether he really intends to run (more on that later).

— At a Republican Lincoln Day dinner last month, Bunning talked about the likelihood of a Supreme Court opening in the near future, noting that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg "has cancer. Bad cancer. The kind that you don't get better from." Bunning gave Ginsburg a survival outlook of nine months. He later apologized.

— A report in the Louisville Courier-Journal quotes sources saying that an angry Bunning raised a scenario at a recent D.C. fundraiser by which he would resign his seat — and have Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear name a successor — if Republicans failed to help him raise money for his campaign. "I would get the last laugh," he is quoted as saying. A Bunning spokesperson vehemently denied the account the next day.

Part of Bunning's pique was directed at the party's campaign committee, headed by Cornyn, which apparently recently met with David Williams, the Republican president of the Kentucky state Senate, to discuss his interest in seeking Bunning's seat. Williams is seen as a McConnell ally, and thus the D.C. meeting was taken as yet another sign that Republicans (read: McConnell) might feel they have a better chance at keeping the seat next year with a different candidate.

Bunning immediately threatened to sue the National Republican Senatorial Committee if it didn't fully back his candidacy.

Bunning may indeed be highly vulnerable. Kentucky Democrats are looking strong as of late, having won back the governorship in 2007 and kept McConnell to just 53 percent of the vote last year.

But is Williams the right guy to save the GOP? Williams was instrumental in working out a deal with Beshear to raise taxes, not the kind of thing that would attract conservatives to your cause. Right-wing chatter suggests that there's no way they would abandon Bunning for someone whose record on taxes was so questionable. (Williams ran for the Senate once before, getting trounced by Democratic incumbent Wendell Ford in 1992.)

And if Bunning decided to drop out of the race, his supporters might go to Secretary of State Trey Grayson before they'd ever back Williams. Another Republican, Rep. Ed Whitfield, is also thought to be eyeing a run if Bunning were to step down.

And there is also Rand Paul, an anti-tax activist who is the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX). He may run regardless of what Bunning decides.

Usually, when someone has been in the public eye for as long as Bunning — someone who experienced years of hearing home-town fans cheering him on — you would think they would enjoy the celebrity. Not Bunning. He always seems angry, aggravated. Maybe that's the mind-set of a big league pitcher. You have the ball and you know where you want to throw it, and it's up to the batter — the opposition — to face it or get out of the way. It's not that easy when the opponent is no longer 60 feet, 6 inches away, but an electorate that is equally cranky. It doesn't sound like the kind of strategy of someone who hopes to keep his job.

Democrats smell blood. Dan Mongiardo, who narrowly lost to Bunning six years ago when he was a state senator, is back for more, this time as lieutenantt. governor. Other Dems might enter as well.

Al Cross, the former political writer for the Courier-Journal and now the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky — and someone who knows more about Kentucky politics than anyone on the planet — had this recent assessment of the state's junior senator:

When Bunning was a pitcher, starters looked down on relievers, saying they were relievers because they weren't good enough to start. Times have changed in baseball, and also in politics. Perhaps on the fund-raising trail, with a report due in [April], he will finally learn that. He has failed to build a large personal following around the state, relying too much on his baseball celebrity, and alienated Republicans whose help he needs. This spring's training could be painful.

Six years ago, when he sought a second term, there was a whispering campaign that, for lack of a better term, Bunning was "losing it." It was first reported in the Courier-Journal, and Democrats gleefully jumped all over it. Yes, Bunning can be cantankerous, and he does have a propensity for speaking before completely thinking. But raising the question of his mental health seemed to some to be over the top. Still, it was effective. Many credit McConnell's efforts and an anti-gay-marriage initiative on the ballot for Bunning's narrow victory that year. But there seems to be little doubt this year that McConnell won't lift a finger for him, financially or organizationally.

I honestly don't know what Bunning intends to do. He retains much support with conservatives who like his "take no prisoners" approach. They say his longstanding criticism of the economic policies pushed by Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke — the former and current Fed heads — were correct all along. But he has not raised the kind of money one would assume a targeted senator would need to fend off his opponents. And many of his opponents are in the Republican Party.