FRANKFORT — Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning warned GOP activists Saturday that he'll soon need help amassing at least $10 million to fund his campaign for a third term, which he expects will draw fierce Democratic opposition.
Then he laid down the gauntlet to any would-be Democratic challengers. "I'm telling you right now, we're going to kick butt in 2010," said Bunning, the Hall of Fame pitcher and two-term senator who hails from Northern Kentucky.
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His comments come as both parties take a deep breath after Tuesday's election and begin looking to the next cycle in 2010, when Bunning's Senate seat will be the top prize in Kentucky.
Already, a host of high-ranking Democratic officials are being mentioned as potential contenders.
Bunning knows they're gunning for him, and says he's ready.
Speaking to the Kentucky Republican Party's state central committee members, Bunning praised the state GOP's performance in re-electing U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday, and said the same level of commitment will be necessary for his race.
"I want to make sure you understand something else: 2010 is not far off," he said. "There are no races in 2009, so you get a year off. But that doesn't mean I won't be knocking on your door, because it takes a minimum now of about $10 million to run a race for the U.S. Senate."
"I'm sorry, I didn't make the rules," he added, prompting laughs.
This fall's Senate race between McConnell and Democrat Bruce Lunsford — a Louisville businessman who bankrolled much of his campaign — set the record for the most expensive political campaign in Kentucky history.
While the final numbers aren't in, McConnell raised $17.8 million by Oct. 1, while Lunsford had collected $7.1 million, of which $5.5 million came from his bank account. In addition, national groups poured in millions of dollars more on behalf of both sides.
"I wouldn't be surprised if this most recent Senate race had a total of $50 million spent on it," said U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, a Hebron Republican.
Because that race involved the sitting Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, that level of spending isn't likely to be seen in Kentucky any time soon, but Bunning acknowledged that it raised the bar for future Senate campaigns.
His re-election campaign fund collected $491,000 over the last four years and started October with about $175,000 in the bank.
In his 2004 campaign, Bunning spent $6.7 million to fend off a late charge by a then-little known state senator, Daniel Mongiardo of Hazard. Bunning edged Mongiardo, now the lieutenant governor, by about 23,000 votes.
Bunning, 77, has insisted that he plans to seek a third six-year term in 2010 despite rumblings among officials from both parties that he might retire.
He again made his intentions crystal clear to Republicans Saturday.
Davis said he is "quite confident that Sen. Bunning is going to run a campaign very similar to the campaigns we've run in our district and Sen. McConnell ran most recently that will demonstrate a level of tenacity and intensity that will set a new standard for campaigns in the commonwealth."
Meanwhile, a who's who of Democratic officials are eyeing the race.
U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, remains the party's biggest name. But Chandler, since being elected to Congress in 2004, has passed on running for governor and challenging McConnell.
On Wednesday, Chandler deflected questions about whether he'd seek the Senate in 2010.
"I am going to be utterly and thoroughly focused on what we do with the new president and how the House gets its affairs in order," he said. "Frankly, I don't think there's time to really consider anything along the lines of future races until we get some accomplishments."
Bunning told the Herald-Leader Saturday that he hadn't talked with Chandler about 2010 but said he thought Chandler would seek the post only if it were an open seat.
"Ben Chandler won't run against me," Bunning said.
Attorney General Jack Conway of Louisville, who at 39 is considered one of the Democrats' future stars, said the race is on his radar screen.
"It's nice to be talked about," he said. "I'll certainly take a look at it."
Even Lunsford and his supporters have left open the possibility that he could be back in two years to make his fourth bid for public office.
And state Auditor Crit Luallen is mulling over the 2010 race.
"We know from Sen. Bunning's last campaign how vulnerable he is," she said. "I certainly haven't ruled it out."
Luallen and Conway said Democrats interested in the race might have to talk among themselves to potentially avoid a costly primary. And most of the potential Democrats interviewed said prospective challengers should start their campaigns no later than next spring.
There also remains no love lost between Mongiardo and Bunning, who fought an often bitter campaign in 2004.
"I think Kentuckians understand that Sen. Bunning is a United States senator who really has not been present in Kentucky. We haven't seen him since the last election and we barely saw him then," said Mongiardo, who said he'll "take a look at" making another run.
Bunning said he would relish a rematch with Mongiardo or a contest with any other Democrat. "The more the merrier," he said.
"There are a lot of people who think the last race is a fluke and I won because of some freakish thing," Bunning said. "But 873,000 votes is not a fluke."