Senate GOP watches, waits as key retirement questions hover over 2010 landscape

Senate Republicans will begin learning about some key potential retirements after recess, with the first in a series of decisions that will loom large over how the 2010 Senate battlefield takes shape.

Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnOvernight Energy: Experts criticize changes to EPA lead, copper rule | House panel looks into plan to limit powers of EPA science advisers | Senate bill aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 Trump budget proposal funds financially struggling museum in Reagan's childhood home The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Worries grow about political violence as midterms approach MORE (R-Okla.) said this week that he will make an announcement about his political plans June 1, and National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John CornynJohn CornynOcasio-Cortez announces slate of all-female congressional endorsements Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan warnings Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE continues to suggest Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) will leave the Senate early, paving the way for a special election.

Cornyn said Thursday at a breakfast with reporters that at least three senators could be on their way out in the coming months, including Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.). And in a fourth race that will have less bearing on 2010, he acknowledged that retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), like Hutchison, could resign early.

Campaign committee chairmen generally press their members to decide early on whether to seek another term. For Cornyn and some of his colleagues, though, that process has been a struggle.

Cornyn would very much like Hutchison to stay in the Senate if she runs for governor in 2010 (her seat is not up until 2012) and would prefer Coburn seek another term to avoid an open-seat race. As for Bunning, Cornyn and other leaders continue to not-so-gently urge him to retire, in hopes that a stronger Republicans will emerge.

The most pressing decision for Cornyn is that of Hutchison, who Cornyn has estimated would bow out this fall. That decision would pave the way for an open special election in May 2010 in which Cornyn fears Democrats would have a better shot at taking the seat than they would otherwise.

Cornyn has claimed no inside knowledge of Hutchison’s deliberations, but it’s clear there has been communication between the two camps. Cornyn said Thursday that he “got in a little trouble” last week when he predicted Hutchison would resign this year, but he continued to say that he “wouldn’t be surprised” by that outcome.

Houston Mayor Bill White and former state Comptroller John Sharp loom on the Democratic side and are raising big money.

“Texas is marginally a red state, but not a slam-dunk,” Cornyn said. “I expect it to be a real race, and certainly not a walk.”

Right up there with Hutchison’s is the decision being made by Coburn.

Coburn said Thursday that he will announce his political plans after recess. Republicans say they expect him to run for reelection, but nobody seems to know for sure.

Cornyn, who could be forced to defend an otherwise safe seat if Coburn exits, certainly isn’t wagering.

He was asked if he had lobbied Coburn to stay.

“Have you tried to persuade Sen. Coburn of anything?” Cornyn said, with notes of exasperation and humor.

Democratic Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry or Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) could feasibly make the race competitive if Coburn does step aside. A survey for the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling this week showed Henry and Boren virtually tied in prospective Senate match-ups with Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.).

As for Bunning, the drama continues to play out on a daily basis, with Bunning continuing his offensive on GOP leaders, who he says are undermining him.

Though Bunning has bristled at the suggestion, Cornyn continued to say Thursday that he thinks the Hall of Fame pitcher might retire. Cornyn noted that Kentucky GOP Secretary of State Trey Grayson has opened an exploratory committee for the race with Bunning’s blessing.

“Maybe it means Sen. Bunning is going to look at what his election prospects look like — what the polls look like, how his fundraising goes — and then make a final decision at some later date,” Cornyn said.

Martinez is a more complicated example. He has already said that he won’t run for reelection, but exiting early would force Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who is running for the seat, to appoint a replacement.

There would be no early special election, as in Texas, but an appointment presents a double-edged sword for Crist. The decision could be fraught with peril, as it was for some governors earlier this year, or Crist could use the decision to bolster his standing with groups like Cuban-Americans. It’s unlikely Crist would resign his post and have the lieutenant governor appoint him to the seat.

Martinez continues to say he has no plans to leave the Senate early.

“This is crazy s--t,” he said Wednesday. “I have nothing to say. This comes up every few weeks.”

But sources close to Martinez said he might very well exit early and is actively looking for jobs for his post-Senate career. They say that if a great opportunity presented itself that required him to resign early, he would do just that.

“He has been looking for a job, and he has been telling all his friends, for a while, that if the right opportunity came along he would consider leaving before his term was up,” said a Florida Republican source.

A GOP aide said plainly: “Mel is going to do what’s best for Mel.”

J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.