Bunning widens rift with GOP

habdullah@mcclatchydc.comFebruary 25, 2009 

The schism between U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning and Republican leaders stretched wider Tuesday as Kentucky's junior senator threatened to sue the National Republican Senatorial Committee if it tries to recruit a GOP candidate to challenge him.

Bunning, in a weekly conference call with reporters, went on to accuse state Senate President David Williams of owing him $30,000 and questioned the honesty of NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas.

Cornyn's offending comment: He told the Washington Post on Monday that the NRSC will back Bunning.

"I don't believe anything Cornyn says ... I've had miscommunications with John Cornyn from the 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."

Bunning's remarks come after a rocky weekend for the 77-year-old lawmaker.

On Friday, Williams met with NRSC officials in Washington about a possible run for U.S. Senate. The next day, Bunning made a headline-grabbing blunder by predicting that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead by year's end.

She has been treated for pancreatic cancer and returned to work Monday. Bunning issued an apology, but the news release misspelled Ginsburg's name.

Meanwhile, Williams would not rule out a challenge to Bunning in the 2010 primary on Monday and 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.

Bunning shot back Tuesday, accusing Williams of failing to repay $30,000 that his campaign provided to help state Sens. Ken Winters, R-Murray, and Jack Westwood, R-Crescent Springs, retain their seats in the fall election.

Williams "owes me $30,000 and he said he'll repay me," Bunning said. "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 an additional $5,000.

Winters and Westwood said they don't know what Bunning is talking about.

Williams said Bunning "has no authority, nor do I or anyone else, to designate funds to go to a particular race, and he should know that."

He said Bunning was "wrong" about being owed money, noting that all members of Kentucky's Republican federal delegation made similar contributions to the state party.

"Sen. Bunning informed me at the time that he was having a hard time raising money, and I told him that if he were the nominee of the Republican Party, I would help him raise money for his coming campaign," Williams said. "And if he is the nominee of the Republican Party, I shall do that."

The tension over financial and political support for Bunning has boiled over in 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 Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Cornyn questioning his re-election plans undermine his bid.

In the 2004 election cycle, Bunning managed 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.

Mongiardo has said he intends to run for the U.S. Senate again in 2010. 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.

Conway said Tuesday that he thought Bunning's statement about Justice Ginsburg was without tact. "I thought his comments were insensitive and callous," Conway said. "I think for the good of Kentucky, he needs to stand up and give a more thorough apology to Justice Ginsburg."

Conway said Bunning is perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the nation. Still, Conway doesn't plan on making a decision about entering the race until after the state legislature adjourns in late March.

A poll taken nearly a month ago by Research 2000 for the Daily Kos blog showed that Bunning would hold a slim advantage against all potential Democratic challengers.

"In the end, the right thing will happen and Sen. Bunning will decide for himself ... he will figure out if he wants to run for another term or not," said Ron Kaufman, an RNC member and adviser to several Republican presidents. "Folks on the periphery who try to influence that one way or another could have an opposite effect."

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