Sen. Bunning decides against third term

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) said Monday he will not seek a third term in the Senate, while Republicans' top potential recruit will wait barely an hour before making his own candidacy official.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), long a favorite of national Republicans, will announce Monday that he will convert his exploratory committee into an official candidacy, a source told The Hill.

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Bunning, who won his 2004 race by a narrow margin over a little-known state senator, has long said he would run for a third term, but two subpar fundraising quarters -- for which he has repeatedly blamed national party leaders -- were ultimately the death knell of the nascent campaign.

"To win a general election, a candidate has to be able to raise millions of dollars to get the message out to voters," Bunning said in a statement on Monday. "Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fundraising. The simple fact is that I have not raised the funds necessary to run an effective campaign for the U.S. Senate. For this reason, I will not be a candidate for re-election in 2010."

He has lashed out at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) and National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas), both of whom expressed uncertainty at his interest in a third term.

And, as he made clear in his statement Monday afternoon, Bunning will spend the remainder of his career in the upper chamber speaking out against members on both sides of the aisle who he believes are doing the country a disservice.

In the past year, Bunning, who has long been a critic of the Federal Reserve, has been one of the loudest voices against bailout and economic stimulus measures, whether those measures were sponsored by Republicans or Democrats.

"Over the past twenty-two years I have always done what I thought was right for Kentucky even if that meant taking positions that were not popular with the media or even leaders of my own party," Bunning said. "Speaking out against bailouts and wasteful spending supported by the Republican leadership in the Senate and a Republican President last year angered many of my colleagues in my own party, but I didn’t run for public office for fame or public acclaim."

On Monday, McConnell, with whom Bunning has clashed repeatedly, had nothing but praise for his seatmate.

"Jim has enjoyed two Hall of Fame worthy careers, and I am honored to have worked by his side in the Senate for the past several years," McConnell said in a statement. "His steadfast focus on serving the people of the Commonwealth has been as unwavering as his conservative ideals. Kentucky is a far better place because of his service."

Though open seats are seldom good news for the party playing defense, Bunning's departure has been greeted by barely contained glee among Republican strategists who worried they would have trouble keeping the seat. Bunning has fostered an unpleasant relationship with local media in recent years and has earned ample negative coverage even as he prepared to run again next year.

"His chance to be re-elected in 2010 was much smaller than you'd like it to be in a cycle where we cannot afford to lose any seats," said Scott Jennings, a veteran Republican Kentucky strategist who worked in the Bush White House. "He was in a weakened position for various reasons, and it would have been a difficult road for him."

The open seat will quickly attract Grayson, who outraised the senator by a two-to-one margin last quarter. Grayson filed an exploratory committee after asking Bunning for permission to do so earlier this Spring.

But Grayson will not be alone in the Republican field. He could also face former Ambassador Cathy Bailey, a wealthy former Republican National Committee member who has expressed interest in a bid and has suggested she could help finance her own campaign. Physician Rand Paul (R), the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is already running.

"Now that Sen. Bunning has made clear what he was planning to do, there will be a lot of fundraising opening up for candidates who may get in the race," Jennings said. "From a tactical perspective, we still have plenty of time to raise money."

Bunning said he would not endorse a candidate in the Republican primary, though he said he hopes "a strong conservative" wins the nomination.

"The Republican Party needs more people with strong principles and convictions that can stand up to the temptations of political power that have engulfed so many of our leaders after they arrive inside the beltway," Bunning said in his statement.

And Jennings said even with a competitive primary, the Bluegrass State's Republican Party is in position to defend the seat.

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"What you have is a large group of motivated Republicans in Kentucky who do want to keep this seat in Republcian hands," Jennings said.

On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D), the once-little known state senator who nearly upset Bunning, is already engaged in a bitter battle with Attorney General Jack Conway (D). Mongiardo began with a strong fundraising performance, but Conway easily outpaced him, raising more than $1.3 million in his first three months as a candidate.

"Democrats will be targeting this seat whether we are running against [ex-Gov.] Ernie Fletcher (R) acolyte Trey Grayson, Ron Paul's son Rand or George Bush fundraising ranger Cathy Bailey," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Bunning becomes the sixth Senate Republican to announce he will step down in 2010, and several of those seats will prove takeover opportunities for Democrats. Retirements by Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) have all given Democrats the chance to steal what would otherwise have been safe Republican seats.

On the Democratic side, only appointed Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) has said he will retire, though Republicans, hoping to woo Rep. Mike Castle (R) into the race, are optimistic about their chances in the First State.

This story was updated at 5:15 p.m.