Sorting out Senate race latest political puzzle

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning has achieved a rare feat in modern-day politics. The irascible Hall of Fame pitcher has brought Republicans and Democrats together on one issue: his status as the most vulnerable incumbent in the upper chamber of Congress.

As a result, prominent Kentucky politicians in both parties are salivating over the 2010 Senate election.

Now that 6th District U.S. Rep Ben Chandler has expressed an interest in the race, the number of name Democrats who are running or considering running stands at four.

Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo announced his intentions a couple of months ago. Mongiardo, then a relatively unknown state senator, narrowly lost to Bunning in 2004 and wants a rematch.

His first finance report, due by April 15, will provide some indication of the strength of his campaign.

Some have speculated that Chandler's expression of interest in the race was an attempt to dry up the flow of money to Mongiardo's campaign. And there is a certain logic to that reasoning.

Chandler, who would become the prohibitive favorite in a Democratic primary if he were to run, has close relationships with state Auditor Crit Luallen and Attorney General Jack Conway, both of whom are seriously considering a campaign for Bunning's seat.

Chandler, Conway and Luallen will not take on one another. Only one of them will make the race. But Chandler's hint about running could freeze Mongiardo's money-raising ability long enough for them to sort out which one it will be.

My guess at the moment, and it is strictly a guess, is that it will not be Chandler.

He's got a safe House seat and a plum assignment on the Appropriations Committee. And his relatively compact district allows him to make his weekend political stops and still spend the evenings at home with his family. As a senator, his weekend political stops could take him all over the state and cut into his family time.

So, short of President Barack Obama making an "I need you, Ben" call in search of a filibuster-proof Senate majority, Chandler may be content to stay in the House.

That leaves Conway and Luallen figuring out which one will challenge Mongiardo in the primary. I expect one of them to enter the race by mid-April.

A unique problem for Conway is that he would be asking Kentuckians to be represented in Washinton by two U.S. senators from Jefferson County. That might be asking too much of the state's voters.

If it's important for Mongiardo to show some good numbers on the finance report due next month, it's absolutely vital for Bunning to do the same.

He has to show the ability to hit his $10 million target to quiet all the talk about Republican leaders cutting off his money in an effort to force him out of the race.

Weak numbers would suggest those rumors are true. Weak numbers would also invite primary opposition, perhaps from state Senate President David Williams, who has shown some interest in challenging Bunning.

If his party really has abandoned him, Bunning might be just stubborn enough to slog on alone. Or he might be just mad enough to follow through on his reported threat to quit before the election, giving Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear the opportunity to appoint Mongiardo to the Senate.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson has said he is interested in running for the Senate if Bunning has a change of heart and decides not to seek re-election. Presumably, Grayson would still be interested if Bunning bails early.

Either way, with Bunning out of the equation, Grayson could face a primary challenge from Williams. After all, if Williams is considering giving up his current position — which he would have to do — to run against an incumbent, he may be more willing to do so to run for an open Senate seat.

Should Williams choose to run for the U.S. Senate, there could be wholesale changes in the state Senate's Republican leadership because a lot of chatter during this year's session suggested Majority Floor Leader Dan Kelly may have his eye on a vacant circuit judgeship in 2010. Like Williams, he would have to give up his state Senate seat to run for another office next year. Williams and Kelly have been the constants in the Republican leadership since the party gained a majority in the Senate in 2000. If both were to call it quits at the same time, there could be a real scramble to fill the power vacuum they would leave.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader