HEBRON — Irascible Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning has been a pariah among his congressional colleagues. Back in the conservative swath of northern Kentucky he calls home, though, he’s being heralded as a hero.
Democrats bemoaned Bunning as unsympathetic to down-on-their-luck Americans when he single-handedly held up a $10 billion spending bill that had money for jobless benefits. He’s not popular among Republican senators, either — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — who worked to dry up the brash lawmaker’s fundraising so he’d have no choice but to drop out of his re-election campaign.
Back home, the former major league pitcher and hall-of-famer is known as a budget hawk standing against out-of-control federal spending. Some 400 people paid $60 to $100 each to reserve seats to honor him at a dinner Saturday evening. McConnell was conspicuously absent, but scores of other politicians lavished Bunning with praise.
“Jim Bunning has been right more than he’s been wrong,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican who thinks of Bunning as his mentor. “And history will show that he, more than anyone else, predicted some of the economic problems we’re having now and worked to try to prevent them.”
Bunning had been widely considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent heading into this year’s elections, and with the GOP trying to retake majority control of the Senate, they encouraged the 78-year-old not to seek a third term. Many feared he couldn’t hold the seat against one of the two prominent Democratic candidates, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway.
But given the change in political mood, Alecia Webb-Edgington — who helped organize the dinner — believes Bunning might have been written off too quickly.
“He’s incredibly popular,” she said. “I truly believe he could have easily won another term.”
Grayson, who is running for the Senate seat, called Bunning “a Hall of Famer in baseball, politics and life.”
This is the same Bunning who has been known to curse at reporters, the tenacious campaigner who once described a Democratic challenger of Italian descent as looking like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. He apologized for that comment.
And, last year, he apologized again after he predicted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, would be dead within a year.
“Jim Bunning may not be known for his sense of humor,” Kentucky Republican U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis said in an interview, “but he is a man of unimpeachable integrity.”
Davis said Bunning stood alone against the “hatred and vitriol” of the liberal media and liberal Democrats when he stalled the spending bill a few weeks ago.
“Jim Bunning did not flinch,” Davis told attendees, triggering one of several standing ovations.
Bunning sat quietly beside his wife of 58 years, Mary, while a video tribute played on huge screens and supporters wiped tears.
He offered his thanks for the tribute in a short speech that he closed by saying “I love you all.”
Bunning made only a passing reference to his action on the spending bill, saying “I’m extremely worried about the condition of the United States of America presently. You cannot keep charging things to the national credit card.”
State GOP Chairman Steve Robertson praised Bunning as “a man who has lived the principles of the Republican Party.” Robertson called on Bunning to “continue to give them hell” in Washington, sparking cheers from the crowd.
That move exposed Bunning to widespread ridicule. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “I don’t know how you negotiate with the irrational.”
Bunning also became fodder for late-night comedians, with Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” calling Bunning a “cranky obstructionist” and joking that he is “leaving the Senate to spend more time obstructing his family’s progress.”
However, Webb-Edgington said supporters saw Bunning’s action as heroic because he took a stand against adding to the deficit.
“He flies the flag for the Republican party,” she said.
Ryan Quarles of Georgetown, a law student at the University of Kentucky, credited Bunning with reinvigorating fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party with his stand on deficit spending.
“At some point, a line had to be drawn on spending,” Quarles said. “Sen. Bunning had the courage to draw that line.”