U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning will start the 2010 campaign cycle with a financial handicap after raising less money in the first quarter of the year than a key Democratic challenger.
Bunning, R-Southgate, pulled in $262,843, bringing his total fund-raising for the campaign to $786,850. He had $375,747 on hand at the end of March.
"When your challenger raises more money than an incumbent in a quarter, it's evidence that Bunning does not have a lot of support and he does not have the money to run the kind of race that he needs," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report. "He either tries to have a significantly better second quarter, or he gives long, hard thought as to whether he really wants to run again."
Kentucky's junior senator is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the 2010 election cycle. His first quarter fund-raising performance is seen as a key indicator of his party's support in what will likely prove one of the nation's most closely watched races.
If Bunning remains in the race, the headaches will mount for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, and National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"Right now, Cornyn is taking two Advil and McConnell is taking four," Duffy said. "On paper this was the most vulnerable seat. Now that we have some figures, it is Republicans' most vulnerable seat by a lot."
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, one of two major Democratic contenders for Bunning's seat, has raised $429,552 since he started collecting money Feb. 17. In a report filed Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission, Mongiardo reported having $388,500 on hand for the 2010 race.
According to Bunning's most recent campaign filings, the senator's largest contributors include a $5,000 donation from defense contractor Raytheon's political action committee, $4,000 from the Coal PAC, and thousands from the energy, insurance and business sectors. Most individual donations hovered in the low three- to four-figure range.
While Bunning struggled in the first quarter, fellow Republican and former Ohio congressman Rob Portman raised $1.7 million and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter raised just under $1.3 million this quarter. He has a $6.7 million war chest.
Still, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was scheduled to attend a private fund-raiser for Bunning in Prospect on Thursday evening, and the senator recently hosted a fund-raiser with baseball legend Tommy Lasorda.
Bill Samuels Jr., president of Maker's Mark Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, said he was hosting Thursday's fund-raiser because "he asked me to, and I didn't hesitate."
Samuels called Bunning "a good senator, especially for free enterprise and small government."
"I take him at his word that he's in this race," Samuels said. "I think everyone should."
However, political analysts say Bunning will have to crank up his fund-raising efforts over the next year. Experts estimate that, should the 2010 Kentucky Senate race prove high profile, Bunning will need roughly $1 million a month in order to mount a competitive campaign — not an easy task for a candidate whose campaign woes began early.
Bunning has openly battled with members of the Republican Party in recent weeks, accusing fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, of being misleading when he told reporters at a gathering at the National Press Club that he was unsure whether Bunning would run for re-election.
Such public squabbles are unsettling to would-be campaign donors, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
In the meantime, there are potential GOP candidates waiting in the wings.
Republicans "would be better served with Secretary of State Trey Grayson. He's younger and more vigorous," Sabato said. "He clearly wants to run if Bunning steps aside."
Grayson has described Bunning as a friend and mentor and refuses to run against him in a primary.
However, "if (Bunning) were to change his mind, I would definitely be interested in the race," Grayson said Thursday.
Williams said recently that he is still considering a primary challenge to Bunning.