Classic Contest in Works for GOP Senate Seat

Though the Washington  punditocracy was relieved with the retirement announcement by Sen. Jim Bunning (R.-Ky.) earlier this week, Republicans in the onetime major league star’s homestate may not feel the same. And it certainly is not the case among the Republican activists in the Bluegrass State.

“Among folks who lick envelopes, work on phone banks and go to precinct committee meetings, Jim was a star,” one longtime party activist who requested anonymity told me, “He opposed all of the Wall Street bailouts,  the Obama stimulus package, and was even critical of [former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan] Greenspan before it was popular. Jim would have won renomination.”

Referring to the state’s senior senator (and Bunning’s fellow Republican) Mitch McConnell, the same source warned: “For leaning on Jim to get out, Mitch will pay for this — and Republicans may pay a price when Jim’s seat is up next year.”

He was referring, of course, to the much-watched nudging and shoving of the 77-year-old Bunning by Senate GOP Leader McConnell throughout the year. When Kentucky Secretary of State and close McConnell ally Trey Grayson declared for the Senate, McConnell pointedly refused to endorse the fellow Republican with whom he has served in the Senate for the past seventeen years. More than a few Kentucky Republicans believe that Grayson would not have raised the $160,000 he now has in his campaign kitty without a few coy winks and nods to contributors from McConnell. (In announcing his retirement Monday, Bunning made a few not-so-subtle references to McConnell’s involvement and made it clear he would not endorse anyone in the primary for his seat).

With Bunning out, the stage is set for a classic confrontation between the establishment:  Grayson with McConnell’s backing, either overtly or covertly — and Dr. Rand Paul of Bowling Green, son of Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Tex.). Young Paul is a cinch to have the backing of his father’s nationwide network of donors who were the force behind Paul, Sr.’s abortive bid for the Republican presidential nomination last year.  In addition, a number of party workers who loved Jim Bunning are likely to roll up their sleeves on behalf of first-time candidate Paul.

“Like Jim, they are not very forgiving of the way Mitch behaved and they’ll take it out on Trey Grayson by working for Rand Paul,” my Kentucky source told me, adding that the younger Paul can also count on volunteers from the Kentuckians who participated in the anti-tax tea parties in April.

Republican eyes will be on National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn and what he and the campaign organization will do. Earlier this year, Texas Sen. Cornyn created a major uproar among conservatives nationwide when he announced his group would give pre-primary backing for the Florida Senate nomination to centrist Gov. Charlie Crist over former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a strong conservative.  Although Grayson is a conservative and would probably not vote that much differently from Bunning (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 96%), a similar NRSC intervention on behalf of Grayson over Paul would probably cause similar outrage against Cornyn on the right.

The two active Democratic contenders are State Attorney General Jack Conway and Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo, who drew 49% of the vote against Bunning in 2004.