Is Mitch McConnell trying to force Jim Bunning out?

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., lashed out at Kentucky's senior senator, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters, expressing frustration that McConnell hasn't publicly backed Bunning's 2010 re-election bid.

Bunning said McConnell must have suffered "a lapse of memory" last week when he told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington that he didn't know if Bunning planned to seek re-election. Bunning, who is widely considered one of the nation's most politically vulnerable GOP senators, said he told McConnell of his re-election intentions in early December.

McConnell's lukewarm support is typical when members of Congress disagree with the senate minority leader on issues, Bunning said. Bunning, who has accused McConnell of taking marching orders from President George W. Bush during the last administration, has also differed with McConnell on the $700 billion bailout of the floundering financial sector and on immigration policy reform.

McConnell "had a lapse of memory when he was speaking to the press club last week when he said he didn't know what my intentions were," Bunning said. "Whatever Mitch says is whatever he says. He's the leader of the pack and he can say whatever he wants and get away with it."

Bunning also expressed frustration with what he sees as a systemic lack of financial support from both McConnell and national Republican fund-raising committees.

In the final weeks of the 2004 election cycle, political experts say McConnell helped Bunning eke out a narrow 1.4 percentage point victory against Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo, then a state senator from eastern Kentucky and now the state's lieutenant governor, by loaning staffers and helping the junior senator raise much needed funds.

"He won because McConnell picked him up and carried him," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst with the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "McConnell got out there and made some personal appeals and got his own organization involved. He made sure they had the money."

However, Bunning's re-election coffers are low, a fact he attributes to his inability to raise funds during McConnell's own contentious re-election bid. Bunning's campaign reported having about $150,000 on hand last week — far less than the $1million political experts suggest Bunning would need by the end of the first quarter in order to start his campaign on solid footing.

Bunning said Tuesday that he will need $10 million to mount a competitive bid. He is putting together a campaign staff, planning several fund-raisers for coming weeks and will conduct polls later this spring.

But while Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is slated to pitch in to help raise funds, McConnell is not, Bunning said.

"For two years Sen. McConnell had a broom out and swept the state of Kentucky. For two years I did not hold a fund-raiser in the Commonwealth of Kentucky because I knew how important McConnell's race was," Bunning said.

The palpable tension between the two Kentucky senators reflects the bleak landscape for the Republican party for the 2010 mid-term elections, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"McConnell and other Republican leaders, both state and national, are trying to nudge Bunning into retirement," Sabato said. "Kentucky is a Republican state but Bunning has squeaked to his two victories. This is one of those rare cases when a party would be better served not to support its incumbent."

Senate Republicans face a difficult re-election picture in 2010. Already three key Republicans, Florida's Mel Martinez, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Kit Bond of Missouri, have announced they will not seek re-election.

Republicans must keep every one of the 41 seats they currently hold if they want to retain the ability to filibuster legislation they do not deem favorable, Sabato said.

However, Bunning's absence during the busy first week of the 111th Congress coupled with his dwindled war chest has raised questions about the 77-year-old junior senator's viability as a candidate for re-election. So far this month, Bunning, who sits on the Senate's Finance, Energy and Natural Resources and Banking committees, missed three cabinet confirmation hearings and a GOP strategy session on President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package.

He also missed critical votes on releasing the second portion of the $700 billion federal bailout on the nation's troubled financial sector — a measure Bunning has staunchly opposed in the past. Bunning's congressional staffers attribute his absences to family commitments and declined to discuss exactly where the senator had been for the better part of a month.

Already, the 2010 campaign looks as if it will feature the strange political twists and turns of both Bunning's previous bids and the Republican party's recent efforts in statewide races. McConnell's relative silence on Bunning's re-election gambit is similar to the senate minority leader's approach to Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher's re-election campaign in 2007.

"If that's what you consider the Fletcher treatment, I guess that's what I'm getting," Bunning said.

The 2010 race may also feature a repeat match between Bunning and Mongiardo. During the 2004 campaign, Bunning said Mongiardo looked "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons."

Mongiardo is an Italian-American. Bunning later apologized for the statement.

Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a fellow Republican, has been mentioned as a possible candidate if Bunning does not seek re-election in 2010. Along with Mongiardo, state Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Crit Luallen have been mentioned as potential candidates on the Democratic side.

"An incumbent has to make a very personal decision. No one can force anyone in or out of a race," Sabato said. "We'll have to see if Bunning continues to run uphill."