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Jim Bunning: Republican senator, Republican irritant

The party would just as soon find someone else to run for his Kentucky seat. That won't be easy, if Bunning has his way.

March 02, 2009|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — In just the last couple of weeks, he clumsily pronounced a Supreme Court justice to be near death and suggested he could sue a fellow senator and the Republican Party. He's raised almost no money for his reelection bid next year and is in serious danger of losing his once-safe seat to the other party.

Party insiders are terrified practically every time he opens his mouth, but he seems determined not to go gently into the night.

Jim Bunning, the hot-tempered Republican senator from Kentucky, has something in common with Roland Burris, the new Democratic senator from Illinois: Their parties seem inclined to move on without them -- if only they would get out of the way.

Bunning is causing one problem after another for his party colleagues. In fact, GOP strategists would love to find someone else to run next year. But Bunning, 77, is refusing to leave.

Bunning says he has been clear that he is going to seek a third term. Yet in January, Sen. John Cornyn, the Texan who recently took the helm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he didn't know whether Bunning was running again. "That's up to Sen. Bunning," Cornyn said.

Asked about those comments last week, Bunning grew furious.

"I don't believe anything John Cornyn says," Bunning said in a conference call with reporters. "I've had miscommunications with John Cornyn from, I guess, the first week of this current session of the Senate. He either doesn't understand English or he doesn't understand direct 'I'm going to run,' which I said to him in the cloakroom of our chamber."

His outburst came days after he said at a Republican dinner in Kentucky that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, would be dead within nine months.

Ginsburg has returned to the bench after surgery in February to remove a small tumor. Bunning apologized, although the statement containing the apology initially misspelled the justice's name as Ginsberg.

Bunning said he could sue Cornyn and the National Republican Senatorial Committee if they backed a challenger in a primary race against him, saying the organization is legally obligated to support incumbents.

"It's a pretty serious situation [for Republicans]," said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "They're trying to protect turf that is slipping away. Here is a seat they could probably hold if they had a serious candidate."

Bunning won reelection in 2004 by just 23,000 votes in a solidly conservative state, in a year when a Republican president won a second term. His campaign suffered missteps, such as when he said his opponent, then-state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, looked like a son of Saddam Hussein.

He had also famously declared during the campaign, "I don't watch the national news, and I don't read the paper. I haven't done that in six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information."

Mongiardo, now the state's lieutenant governor, said last week that he would challenge Bunning again in 2010.

All of this has left Mitch McConnell, the other Kentucky senator, in an unenviable position.

He has referred to Bunning as his best friend in the Senate, but McConnell is also the Republican leader in the chamber. Losing a once-secure seat in his home state would be a political black eye for McConnell, as well as a strategic setback.

Republicans may have to defend as many as five seats being vacated by GOP incumbents. At least four other Republican senators face races that are expected to be close. The party does not need the possible distraction and financial drain that a tight race in Kentucky would offer.

McConnell, Geer said, is the one who could go to Kentucky and make the case to Bunning that a new candidate is needed to help the GOP hold onto the seat.

"He's the one who can ask Bunning to step aside for the good of the party," Geer said. "He's the key player here."

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joliphant@tribune.com

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