By Ryan Alessi – email@example.com
U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning issued a surprise endorsement Wednesday of Republican candidate Rand Paul, calling him the one “strong, principled conservative” and best choice to fill the Senate seat Bunning will vacate later this year.
The endorsement, released at 5 p.m. in a four-paragraph statement from Bunning’s press secretary Mike Reynard, is the latest public indignity handed to Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Bunning loyalist who was once considered the front-runner for the GOP Senate nomination.
Bunning, in the statement, said Kentucky “needs a conservative who will say no to bailouts, stop the government takeover of our economy, end wasteful spending, and bring down our national debt.”
“In 2010, there is only one such conservative running for the United States Senate — Dr. Rand Paul,” Bunning’s statement said.
Bunning’s endorsement might not shift many votes, said Scott Lasley, a Republican and political science professor at Western Kentucky University, but it builds on the disparity in momentum for the Paul and Grayson campaigns.
“The Grayson camp has continued to search for solid footing and it doesn’t help move him to that,” Lasley said.
Paul, a favored candidate of the Tea Party movement, has built double-digit leads in most public polls, fueled by GOP voters’ reaction to his message blasting government spending and the nation’s debt.
Grayson’s campaign manager Nate Hodson said Bunning “is flat-out wrong about Rand Paul.”
“We’ve always respected Senator Bunning’s fiscally conservative views, but even as a major league pitcher, he’d occasionally misfire,” he said.
Bunning also called Paul the candidate most suited among those running in the May 18 primary election who could stand up to “the liberals and establishment politicians that run Washington.”
The “establishment” phrase — and the endorsement in general — also could be interpreted as Bunning lashing out at fellow Kentuckian and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Lasley said.
The relationship between Bunning and McConnell, who has signaled support for Grayson, turned frigid after McConnell nudged Bunning toward retirement last year while the Hall of Fame baseball pitcher was still planning on seeking a third term.
The communication lines between Paul and Bunning opened over the last two weeks since the two attended the 5th District Lincoln Day Dinner in Corbin on March 27.
Paul, in his remarks at the dinner, praised Bunning for his “principled stand” to temporarily block extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits because Congress failed to propose a way to pay for that increased spending.
After the dinner, Bunning saw Paul on his way outside and said just two words to him: “We’ll talk.”
Bunning refused to speak to a reporter at the time, and Paul said he wasn’t sure what Bunning meant by the comment.
David Adams, Paul’s campaign manager, said Wednesday that Paul and Bunning spoke by phone the following Monday and had several “good conversations” afterward.
Bunning’s statement painted Paul as a kindred spirit, who would “be his own man in Washington.”
“I know what it takes to stand up for the conservative principles that are needed to make America a better place for our children and grandchildren,” Bunning’s statement said. “Dr. Paul shares those same core values and has the courage and conviction necessary to make sure the voices of Kentucky’s workers, families, retirees, and children are heard in Washington.”
Bunning’s statement made no reference to Grayson, who like Bunning, lives in Northern Kentucky.
Grayson has long considered Bunning a strong backer. In fact, Bunning encouraged Grayson to form an exploratory committee last spring months before Bunning announced he would retire.
“At the time he never said, ‘I’m going to endorse you.’ He was just looking out for me,” Grayson said in an interview last week.
Grayson’s campaign didn’t return a call for comment Wednesday.
While many Republican officials prefer to stay neutral during primaries, Bunning hasn’t been afraid to pick sides. In 2007, he publicly backed former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup against Gov. Ernie Fletcher in the gubernatorial primary. Northup lost.