WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Bunning on Tuesday acknowledged to reporters that he encouraged his friend, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, to explore running for his Senate seat, but insisted he has no plans to drop out of the race. Then Bunning launched his harshest attack yet on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Bunning assailed his fellow Kentucky Republican for the state of the dwindled Republican caucus. "Under our dynamic leadership of our leader, we have gone from 55 to 40 (Senate seats) in two cycles. . . we will end up with about 36 after this cycle," Bunning said on a conference call. "So if leadership means anything, it means you don't lose 19 seats if you're leading."
Bunning, 77, is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent in the 2010 cycle, and has faced increasing pressure from within the party to not seek re-election. He has publicly sparred with party leaders, including McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, over his re-election bid.
Bunning hit back on Tuesday, criticizing the GOP leadership's courting of political moderate Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Last week, Specter switched to the Democratic Party — a move Bunning called "selfish."
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"Do you know Arlen Specter will be 80, has had four bouts with cancer and he still wants to run for the U.S. Senate?” Bunning said. "I'm being criticized at 77 and healthy for wanting to run for the U.S. Senate by certain leadership people in my party. Give me a break."
Beset by questions about his re-election plans, Bunning sought to clarify his support of Grayson's decision to explore running for Bunning’s Senate seat.
"I suggested it to Trey at the Fourth District Lincoln Day dinner because he is a friend and because this is a way for him to travel the state and raise money," Bunning said. "This can carry over past this U.S. Senate race. Trey has given me his assurance this was the case."
However, Bunning cautioned that his support of Grayson's exploratory committee does not mean that the junior senator is ready to drop his own bid.
After an abysmal first quarter of fund raising, Bunning says his second quarter fund-raising has picked up significantly. He also plans to meet with John Weaver, Arizona Sen. John McCain's former top strategist to discuss the Kentucky race.
Still, 2010 will prove a difficult cycle for all Republicans, Bunning said. He knows he's facing an uphill battle and is prepared to reassess his chances in July.
"I'm not going to walk into 2010 with less than $1 million when I know it will take $7 million to run against the winner of Democratic primary," he said.