Bunning said last week that he's in the race to stay, but he again lowered a fund-raising goal, saying the prospect of a money-burning Democratic primary means that he wouldn't need $10 million after all, but only $7 million. But at the rate he's going, he would need more than 26 years to raise that much. He said he had raised another $125,000 at two fund-raisers this month, but some of that money appeared to have been included on his January-to-March report.
The big question remains: Will Bunning get out if he realizes that he can't raise the money needed to make a viable defense of his nationally important seat? After events at which people said nice things about him and paid money to be in his presence, he's probably feeling his oats, but he must also realize that the feedbag is hanging pretty slack, and the guess here is that another quarter like the last one could well prompt a withdrawal in July.
The chief candidate-in-waiting is Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who attended both Bunning fund-raisers, says he won't challenge his fellow northern Kentuckian, and seems to be hoping if not expecting a summer withdrawal and endorsement.
While Grayson waits, state Senate President David Williams wonders. He has indicated a willingness to take on Bunning in a primary, but would surely want at least some quiet assistance from McConnell, and Williams' high negatives in a recent poll probably make that unlikely. And if Williams ran, anti-tax Republican Rand Paul of Bowling Green might too.
Meanwhile, Williams and Republicans must consider the state Senate elections of 2010, in which he and Floor Leader Dan Kelly of Springfield are both up for re-election. What if Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appoints Kelly to a circuit judgeship? What if other Republican senators decide not to run again? The party's control of the chamber could be at risk.
The only other notable Republican who seems willing to take on Bunning in a primary is Cathy Bailey of Louisville, former Republican national committeewoman for Kentucky and most recently ambassador to Latvia. She could jump-start a campaign with personal wealth, and her experience as a GOP fund-raiser could enable her to show she has other credentials than the ability to write big checks.
However, Bailey has never been a candidate, and would likely have difficulty in rural areas. Some Republicans would see her as this year's version of former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup of Louisville, who took on weakened Gov. Ernie Fletcher in the 2007 primary and ran into resistance from Republicans who confused party allegiance with pride in having a governor.
As a senator, and one who has not built a large personal following in the state, Bunning would benefit much less from that sense of party loyalty. But if someone challenges him, his competitive nature probably make it less likely that he will get out (especially if the foe is Williams, who has in effect already challenged the incumbent).
Some Republicans still think Bunning is unbeatable in a primary, but what if a challenger hired a videographer to trail Bunning and catch him in, or even prompt, another gaffe that could prove a game-changer?
Such calculations may be on the mind of 1st District Rep. Ed Whitfield, the latest fair-haired fellow among anti-Bunning Republicans.
Whitfield has said he will support Bunning as long as he is in the race, but the senator's bad numbers have put Whitfield's name back into circulation. Here's another number to consider: $673,038. That's the balance in Whitfield's House campaign account, which he could use to run for the Senate. It also means he can afford to defer a decision.