WASHINGTON (AP) - A Republican family feud in Kentucky is creating headaches for GOP leaders struggling to position themselves for a congressional comeback in 2010, a year that already seems aligned against them.
Out of power and facing several potentially tough races in the next election cycle, Republican leaders have been sending not-so-subtle messages to Sen. Jim Bunning that they would like for him to retire. Bunning, 77, is considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent running for re-election next year.
But Bunning, a famously irascible former pitcher enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame, is digging in. He insists he will run despite lackluster fundraising and is rebuking those who suggest he shouldn't.
It's an uncomfortable situation for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, also a Kentucky Republican, who just won his own bruising re-election. But Republicans may have to employ a scorched-earth strategy if they want to make even modest gains in the Senate next year.
Republicans are coming off back-to-back losses that cost them control of Congress and the presidency. Next year, they will have to defend seats in several competitive states with no incumbents, including Florida, Ohio, Missouri and New Hampshire.
"If we're serious about a comeback - and we must be - then we'll all do what's necessary to get there," McConnell told his colleagues at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting last month.
Bunning has won election to the Senate twice, both times by razor-thin margins. He most recently defeated Democrat Daniel Mongiardo in 2004, a year kind to Republicans, with less than 51 percent of the vote after a nasty race that was marked by smears on both sides and many off-color comments by Bunning. The outspoken senator claimed that one of Mongiardo's staffers beat Bunning's wife "black and blue" at a political picnic and said the Democrat looked like one of Saddam Hussein's sons.
With the campaign season more than 20 months away, Republicans are again feeling heartburn as Bunning made news by striking out at his colleagues and even suggesting that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may die within a year from pancreatic cancer. He later apologized for that comment.
McConnell has not publicly asked Bunning to retire, but he has ducked questions about the race, saying he will wait until Bunning makes his intentions clear. Bunning, who has said over and over that he is running, said later that McConnell must have "had a lapse of memory."
He has had even harsher words for Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who is leading the GOP's re-election efforts for next year. Cornyn had similarly deflected comment on the race, prompting Bunning to say Cornyn "doesn't understand English."
Bunning did not appear to be mollified when Cornyn said he supports the Kentucky senator. "I don't believe anything John Cornyn says," Bunning said.
That comment came around the same time that word leaked that Republican Kentucky state Senate President David Williams met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Cornyn heads. Bunning told reporters Tuesday that he would have grounds for a lawsuit against the committee if it backed a GOP challenger to him in the 2010 primary.
In Kentucky, both Republicans and Democrats are circling anxiously. Williams hasn't ruled out a possible run for Bunning's seat in the 2010 Republican primary. Democrat Mongiardo has said he will run against the senator and has called on him to resign.
Attorney General Jack Conway, a Louisville Democrat who is considering entering the race, said Bunning's competitive nature and confrontational style make him unappealing to voters.
"I think people want more out of that office than comments like that," Conway said.
To be sure, Bunning's conservative views are in line with much of the state. A fiscal hawk who often aggressively questions administration officials from both parties and has strongly opposed recent federal bailouts, he has often used his Senate power to hold up nominees and legislation to make his points.
Larry Forgy, a former Republican candidate for governor who has long been involved in state politics, said voters will stand behind Bunning's strong fiscal positions and might even like him more for the perception that he's unpopular in Washington.
"I think Jim Bunning's voting record is much more in keeping with the people of this state than McConnell's," Forgy said, noting that McConnell supported a bailout for the financial industry last year.
But Republicans in the state have increasingly found themselves in political trouble as Democrats have made gains. The state's governor, Steve Beshear, is a Democrat who took office in 2007, and McConnell himself faced a fierce challenge in 2008.
Laurie Rhodebeck, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville, says she thinks Bunning has lost a lot of political capital since his last election.
"The senator just has had that aura of vulnerability ever since then and he's done so little to make himself look like a strong incumbent," she said. "He just increasingly comes off as a snarly old guy."
Associated Press writer Roger Alford in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.