WASHINGTON — Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning ended his tumultuous bid for a third term on Monday, positioning Secretary of State Trey Grayson as the candidate to beat in the 2010 Republican primary.
Bunning, 77, a Hall of Fame pitcher, issued a lengthy statement blaming GOP leaders for his campaign's demise.
"Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fund-raising," Bunning said.
For months, Bunning has bemoaned the state of his war chest and blamed his fellow Kentuckian, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas for casting doubt about his political future.
Bunning raised $302,467 for his re-election campaign in the past three months, putting him last among the top four candidates seeking the seat.
"The simple fact is that I have not raised the funds necessary to run an effective campaign for the U.S. Senate," Bunning said. "For this reason, I will not be a candidate for re-election in 2010."
Bunning's exit from the 2010 race focuses attention on Grayson, who has raised more than $600,000 since forming an exploratory committee in May to look at the race.
Grayson, 37, said Monday he soon will "transition my exploratory committee to an official campaign committee, but today it is appropriate that we honor the exceptional career of Senator Jim Bunning and take time to thank him for his extraordinary service to our state and nation."
With Bunning out of the picture, Grayson's fund-raising should accelerate quickly, political analysts said Monday.
"My guess is that he's going to find things get easier for him," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report. "The NRSC can now help him, and he can get some national money."
University of Kentucky political science professor Donald Gross said it's too early to say how Grayson might fare in a general election race against either Jack Conway, the attorney general, or Daniel Mongiardo, the lieutenant governor.
"I do think Republicans have a better chance of keeping the seat with Grayson than if Bunning had stayed in the race," Gross said.
But first, Grayson must unite a splintered Kentucky GOP.
"It will be interesting to see if there are widespread hard feelings from Bunning supporters," Gross said. "The Republican Party in Kentucky will have to be united to keep the seat."
Some of Bunning's closest supporters sent mixed messages about Grayson on Monday.
Bill Stone, a Louisville businessman and longtime Bunning friend and ally, said he and other Republicans are confident that Grayson can keep the seat with the Republican Party.
"This extremely activist and left-wing government does not need help from Kentucky," Stone said. "And I think people in Kentucky really understand that."
Other Bunning supporters, including Lexington attorney Larry Forgy, continued to lash out against McConnell and Grayson.
"McConnell treats friends like some people treat Pampers — disposable," Forgy said. "I'm sorry he treated Bunning this way, doing everything he could to keep campaign money from coming his way."
McConnell, who has declined to speak in support of Bunning in recent months, was politic on Monday.
"Jim has enjoyed two Hall of Fame-worthy careers, and I am honored to have worked by his side in the Senate for the past several years," McConnell said in a statement. "His steadfast focus on serving the people of the commonwealth has been as unwavering as his conservative ideals. Kentucky is a far better place because of his service."
Previously, McConnell had publicly questioned "who the players are going to be in Kentucky" and, according to Bunning, during a December meeting told the state's junior senator that he was "too old to run for re-election."
Bunning also had accused the National Republican Senatorial Committee of trying to court primary challengers when members of that group met with state Senate President David Williams in February. Cornyn said the meeting was a "courtesy visit" and that the party would back Bunning in a contested primary.
On Monday, Cornyn was laudatory.
"For over 20 years, Senator Jim Bunning has been a principled leader in Congress who has served his state and its people well," Cornyn said in a statement. "He has always been a leader who has put Kentucky first."
The outcome of the Kentucky race, which national analysts consider a toss-up, will have national implications.
In 2010, the Republican Party will have to defend 19 of its 40 Senate seats. Several Republicans, including Mel Martinez of Florida, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Kit Bond of Missouri, have announced that they won't seek re-election in 2010.
Over the past two elections, Republicans lost 13 Senate and 51 House seats.
In Kentucky, other Republicans who have expressed an interest in the 2010 race are Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul, son of U.S. Rep Ron Paul of Texas; Cathy Bailey, a former U.S. ambassador to Latvia; and Bill Johnson, a Todd County Navy veteran and businessman.
Paul's campaign manager, David Adams, said the campaign "has nothing but good things to say about Bunning, especially his votes on bailouts." Paul will continue to explore the possibility of entering the race, Adams said.
Bunning has been an outspoken critic of bank bailouts and President Barack Obama's economic initiatives, something he rarely got credit for understanding, Stone said.
"In 24 years, no one had to explain an issue to Jim Bunning," Stone said. "He has been right from day one about the economy."
Bailey said Bunning should be commended for his service to Kentucky and the country. She declined to state her own political ambitions.
Besides Conway and Mongiardo, other Democrats in the race include Louisville businessman Maurice Sweeney and Darlene Fitzgerald Price, a former U.S. Customs agent from McCreary County.
In a statement, Conway thanked Bunning for his public service and then said he looks forward to "facing whoever the Republican nominee will be next fall."
Mongiardo said in a statement that his "campaign has never been about Jim Bunning, but fighting for affordable health care, affordable energy, and good jobs for Kentucky's hard-working families. Today's announcement does not change that."
Herald-Leader reporter Beth Musgrave contributed to this story.