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Senate Race Dominates GOP Lincoln Dinner

From Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh

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The 2010 U.S. Senate race was the topic du jour Saturday night at this year's GOP Lincoln Dinner at the Galt House in Louisville. Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh has details.

From start to finish, it was clear, the ultimate goal was to present a unified front. For the most part, the party leaders used their speeches to attack the Democrats, not each other. But Kentucky House Minority Leader Jeffrey Hoover admitted there is division within the party.

"There's no hiding the fact that there's a little tension in the air among us Republicans here this evening," Hoover told the crowd. "But that's all right. That can be healthy."

The tension is between U-S Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Kentucky's junior Senator, Jim Bunning. McConnell has failed to endorse Bunning's re-election bid and Bunning, who's having difficulty raising money, has been openly critical of McConnell's leadership. As they passed each other when they arrived at the Galt House Saturday night, they didn't speak. And when they were seated for dinner in the Grand Ballroom, it was at separate tables, 20-feet apart. Prior to the dinner, rumors and speculation had circulated that Bunning, who won re-election in 2004 by just 23,000 votes, might use the event to announce his retirement. It didn't happen. He told the crowd of nearly 400, he's his own man and nobody's puppet. And he says his core, conservative values are under attack by Democrats in Washington.

"That is why I am running for a third term to the United States Senate. (Applause) I hope and pray I can count on your support in the coming months," said Bunning.

In his speech, Senator McConnell acknowledged Bunning's victories in 1998 and 2004, but didn't mention the 2010 race. Afterwards, McConnell still wasn't talking.

"I'm not prepared to talk about what's going to happen in the Senate race in Kentucky," McConnell told Kentucky Public Radio. "I think it's somewhat unclear and we'll just have to wait and see what develops."

Master of ceremonies for the evening was Senator Bunning's good friend, Secretary of State Trey Grayson. In the past, Grayson has said he wouldn't run against Bunning. Is that still the case?

"Will you run if Senator Bunning stays in?" asked a reporter.

"I'm doing - I mean, the exploratory's doing well. Full speed ahead. We should have some more announcements coming soon about it," replied Grayson, as he walked away.

Former U.S. Ambassador Cathy Bailey wasn't as coy. She's definitely interested in the race.

"Am I looking at this race? Yes. Have I made a final decision? No," said Bailey. "I've not formed any kind of exploratory committee. I've not made any formal announcement. But I am looking into it. Talking to a lot of people."

Kentucky Senate President David Williams is still sounding like a potential candidate, too. Williams told reporters if Bunning stays in and continues to have trouble raising money, then "someone will have to take him on."

"I don't see any of the other people that are talking about running that have enough guts to take him on," said Williams. "So, I've never been short on guts. Sometimes I've made the wrong decision, but you know I'd take him on if I felt like it was necessary for the Republicans to hold the seat in the United States Senate."

One potential candidate who's making it clear he's no longer interested is Congressman Ed Whitfield. "I hope to be re-elected to the U-S Congress," Whitfield told us.

"What if Bunning got out? Would that change your mind?" asked McVeigh.

"You know, I don't think so," replied Whitfield. "He said pretty emphatically that he's a candidate, and I intend to run for Congress. I'm not going to run for U-S Senate."

Absent from the dinner was another potential candidate, Rand Paul of Bowling Green.

As he had done when he entered the Galt House, Senator Bunning ignored reporters' questions as he departed. But if he was hoping his speech to the party faithful had finally put an end to speculation about his re-election bid, he has to be disappointed. If anything, it raised only more questions.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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