Washington — Sen. Jim Bunning is vowing to fight back as his feud with Republican leadership over his 2010 re-election bid spills into the national political scene.
If Republican campaign organizations tried to recruit another candidate to run in Bunning's stead, "I would have a suit against the (National Republican Senatorial Committee) if they did that," Bunning told reporters on Tuesday. "In their bylaws, support of the incumbents is the only reason they exist."
The 77-year-old senator says he's repeatedly told Republican leadership that he plans on running in 2010 for a third term.
This week, speculation about Bunning’s seat has focused on state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who on Monday wouldn’t rule out running for U.S. Senate. But Williams told reporters that he would be "less than candid" if he did not say "a lot of rank-and-file people" have called him about the race.
NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas told The Washington Post on Monday that Williams' meeting with organization officials last week was a "courtesy visit" and that the party "would back Bunning in a contested primary."
NRSC officials did not address Bunning's comments about whether the organization would violate bylaws by supporting another candidate.
"Senator Cornyn had made clear that he supports Senator Bunning's bid for re-election and he has no intention of recruiting a primary opponent against him," said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh. "It wouldn't be productive to respond further to the Senator's comments but suffice to say, the NRSC already supports Senator Bunning so this is all a moot point."
Bunning says he isn't mollified by the NRSC's assurances.
"I don't believe anything Cornyn says I've had miscommunications with John Cornyn from first week of this session," Bunning said. "The NRSC never helped me last time and they're probably not going to help me this time."
The tension over financial and political support has simmered over the past few weeks as Bunning has faced mounting pressure from Republican leaders to reconsider his re-election bid. Bunning has complained that comments by fellow Kentuckian Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Cornyn questioning the junior senator’s re-election plans undermine his campaign efforts.
As of Tuesday, Bunning had not asked Williams whether his meeting with NRSC officials is a precursor to a possible run. Bunning says he has a good relationship with Williams.
"David Williams usually has the ability to make up his own mind," Bunning said, adding the state lawmaker "owes me $30,000 and he said he'll repay me. I was short in my FEC money and he asked me if I would help save two state senate seats I told him if I did it I would have to have it replaced at the first of the year. So far he has not."
A Federal Election Commission report for Bunning's campaign committee, Citizens for Bunning, shows a $25,000 contribution to the Republican Party of Kentucky on Oct. 20, 2008. Bunning said his political action committee donated another $5,000.
Williams said Bunning was "wrong about that" when Bunning said Williams owed him $30,000.
Williams said Bunning has "no right or authority to designate where any money that's given to the Republican Party is used. I asked him to contribute, as I did the other members of the Congressional delegation, and the Republican Party of Kentucky determines where the money is spent in the legislative races or wherever."
Williams also said Bunning was not accurate when he said the money went to the state Senate re-election campaigns of Republicans Jack Westwood of Crescent Spring and Ken Winters of Murray.
"He has no authority nor do I or anyone else to designate funds to go to a particular race and he should know that," Williams said.
Westwood and Winters said they did not know what Bunning was talking about.
In the 2004 election cycle, Bunning eked out a narrow 1.4 percentage point victory against Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo, then a state senator from Eastern Kentucky and now the state’s lieutenant governor. During the 2004 campaign, Bunning said Mongiardo, an Italian-American, looked "like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons."
Bunning later apologized for the statement, and the two may face off again in 2010.
Bunning also drew attention this week for comments he made over the weekend about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's health. Bunning apologized for those comments on Monday.
Along with Mongiardo, state Attorney General Jack Conway and state Auditor Crit Luallen have been mentioned as potential candidates on the Democratic side. U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, has not ruled out a run.
A poll taken nearly a month ago by Research 2000 for the Daily Kos blog showed Bunning would hold a slim advantage against all the potential Democratic challengers.
"In the end the right thing will happen and Sen. Bunning will decide for himself. He's always been a pretty astute politician and he will figure out if he wants to run for another term or not," said Ron Kaufman, an RNC member and advisor to several Republican presidents. "Folks on the peripheral who try to influence that one way or another could have an opposite effect."
(Lexington Herald Leader reporter Jack Brammer contributed to this report. )