WASHINGTON -- Republican insiders are hedging their bets on the fate of Sen. Jim Bunning's 2010 re-election bid as the rift between Kentucky's junior senator and GOP leaders widens.
For the better part of a month, Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher, has thrown Republican leaders curveballs by feuding with his fellow Kentuckian, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee's chairman, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, over support for his re-election efforts. Bunning also made a headline-grabbing blunder by predicting that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead by year's end.
Bunning apologized Monday for the Ginsburg statement. However, some Republican analysts want Bunning benched.
"The Republican Party and the leadership in the Republican Party needs to be more vigilant in holding up leaders who stray off the reservation in actions and words," said Phil Musser, a GOP political consultant who advised Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and Matt Blunt and Bobby Jindal's gubernatorial campaigns. "Bunning has been increasingly an erratic and inconsistent voice."
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On Tuesday, Bunning threatened to sue the National Republican Senatorial Committee if it tries to recruit a GOP candidate to challenge him. He then went on to accuse state Senate President David Williams of owing him $30,000 and questioned Cornyn's honesty.
On Friday, Williams met with NRSC officials in Washington about a possible run for the U.S. Senate, a move that infuriated Bunning.
"With the stakes so high in respect to the balance of power in 2010, a lot of Republicans wonder if senators who are making these kinds of statements aren't just providing cannon fodder to Democrats," Musser said.
This isn't Bunning's first brush with verbal faux pas.
During the 2004 campaign, Bunning said Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo, then a state senator from Eastern Kentucky and now the state's lieutenant governor, looked "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons." Mongiardo is an Italian-American.
Bunning later apologized for the statement, and the two may face off again in 2010.
Mongiardo issued a statement Wednesday calling on Bunning to withdraw from the Senate contest because Bunning is an "embarrassment to Kentuckians."
"By his outrageous and inaccurate comments about the health of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senator Bunning has once again engaged in conduct unbecoming of a United States senator," Mongiardo said in the statement. "By attacking fellow Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn and by his threat to sue the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senator Bunning has lost any sense how to get things done in the Senate. If Senator Bunning is going to constantly fight with his fellow Republican senators, how can he possibly deliver for Kentucky? It's time for Senator Bunning to withdraw from the U.S. Senate race. It's time for him to go."
Bunning did not respond.
In the 2004 election cycle, Mongiardo lost to Bunning by a 1.4 percentage point margin.
Other Democrats considering the race include state Attorney General Jack Conway and state Auditor Crit Luallen. U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, has not ruled out a run.
In the meantime, the state's Republicans are hoping to avoid a replay of the 2007 Kentucky governor's race, when GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher refused to step aside and lost in a landslide to Democrat and current Gov. Steve Beshear.
Ultimately, the true test of Bunning's ability to mount a viable bid for a third term will depend on whether he is able to raise funds and fortify support, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst with the Cook Political Report.
"It's up to him. He promised to raise $2 million and they'll hold him to it," Duffy said.
So far, Bunning has banked only $150,000 in what could be a race that demands $10 million or more per candidate.
In a telephone press conference with reporters on Tuesday, Bunning had just four words for naysayers:
"I'm going to run."