FRANKFORT — State Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, wouldn't rule out running for U.S. Senate next year, the latest hint of behind-the-scenes machinations among Republicans that underscore GOP Sen. Jim Bunning's political fragility.
Bunning, meanwhile, didn't help his own cause with remarks over the weekend about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's health. Bunning issued an apology Monday.
Bunning, of Southgate, has said he plans to seek a third term in 2010 but so far has raised little money. And he has ignored gentle prodding from some GOP leaders to consider retirement because he starts with a small lead in the polls over several potential Democratic challengers and has banked only $150,000 in what could be a race that demands $10 million or more per candidate.
"But there's the thought that the more they push, the more Bunning wants to stay," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the Rothenberg Political Report newsletter.
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The emergence of other prominent Kentucky Republicans who say they are considering the 2010 U.S. Senate race has sparked a firestorm of speculation. Still, both Williams and Secretary of State Trey Grayson claim they don't want to challenge Bunning.
Williams, who has been state Senate president since 2000, told reporters at the state Capitol Monday that he has made no decision about running for any office, including the U.S. Senate. His state Senate seat is up for re-election in 2010.
"We'll just see what the rest of the year brings," he said. "I've made no decision about running for any office whatsoever. And I haven't solicited anybody's support, and I haven't raised any money and I've always been for Jim Bunning and he's always been for me."
The comment was Williams' first on published reports that Williams met with officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Friday to talk about a potential U.S. Senate run.
The Hill, a Washington political newspaper, cited anonymous "sources in Washington and Kentucky" in its report over the weekend, but did not speak with Williams directly. Williams was in Washington attending a meeting of legislators from around the nation.
Williams declined to talk about a meeting with Senate Republican strategists, but NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas told The Washington Post on Monday that it was a "courtesy visit" and that the party "would back Bunning in a contested primary."
Still, Williams said 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 did not respond to questions about Williams on Monday.
Grayson, meanwhile, said his position about the U.S. Senate race is unchanged.
"Senator Bunning is a friend and mentor. As I have mentioned before, if he were to decide not to run, I would be keenly interested in the race," he said in a statement. "Senator Bunning has said that he is running, and I take him at his word. I am not planning a primary."
Scott Lasley, associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University, said a GOP primary with an incumbent would be "damaging."
"But my sense right now is that it's the equivalent of a trial balloon," he said of Williams' interest. "As long as it's resolved quickly and harmoniously, I don't see that it will have much effect on the party."
However, Kentucky Republicans went through similar machinations in the months before the 2007 GOP primary for governor. A succession of high-profile Republicans expressed interest, if fleeting, in challenging then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Williams, then-Lt. Gov. Steve Pence and Grayson all were mentioned as possible candidates before former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup of Louisville took on Fletcher and lost in a bitter contest.
Kentucky Republicans will have plenty of sorting out to do in the coming months, Lasley said, especially considering that at least three generations of Kentucky Republican politicians are in the mix with Grayson, 36, Williams, 55, and Bunning, 77.
"Trey Grayson is relatively young and has 30 to 40 years left in his career. David Williams is probably running out of time for some kind of different position. If he wants something more, there's probably not that many windows left," he said.
Also Monday, Bunning said he was sorry for comments he made Saturday at the Hardin County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner about Ginsburg.
Bunning said Ginsburg could die within the year from pancreatic cancer, which is the "kind that you don't get better from." The Courier-Journal first reported Bunning's comments.
"I apologize if my comments offended Justice Ginsberg," Bunning said in a statement released from his Washington office. The statement misspelled her last name. "It is great to see her back at the Supreme Court today."
Doctors diagnosed the justice and removed a small tumor this month. They said the cancer was caught early, when it is most curable.
Among the Democrats, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo has announced his interest in the 2010 race, while Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Crit Luallen continue to consider runs. U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, has not ruled out a run.
A poll taken nearly a month ago by Research 2000 for the Daily Kos blog showed Bunning would hold a slim advantage against all the potential Democratic challengers.