03/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McConnell Makes Opening Chess Move To Force Senator Bunning To Retire Or Face GOP Primary Challenge In 2010

For those thinking ahead to the 2010 Senate races, the likely three-peat that Democrats are likely to inflict on Republicans, there is no GOP target more inviting and vulnerable than the seat currently occupied by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY). More than even those open seats in swing states caused by GOP retirements, Bunning's seat is largely considered as the one most likely to switch parties than the rest.

Then came this news today from The Hill:

Kentucky state Senator David Williams (R) has met with officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sources confirm to The Hill, as he begins to actively consider a bid for Sen. Jim Bunning's (R-Ken.) seat.

However, after spending more than four years deep in the trenches of Kentucky politics, my gut strongly says that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is carefully orchestrating this leak as nothing more than a Trojan horse in hopes of forcing Bunning to retire, so that the state GOP could then run Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) instead.

What you need to know is that Grayson is a well-liked (hell, I like him and have always gotten along quite well with him) 36-year-old, two-term secretary of state from Northern Kentucky (Cincinnati suburbs). The state GOP has been carefully cultivating Trey for a big run for a number of years, and this effort seems like a vintage McConnell move. If Bunning does retire (which I really doubt will happen since he's a cantankerous old bastard), and Trey becomes the nominee, this race will one hell of a dog fight and a likely "toss-up" for Dems, at best, instead of a "likely Democratic takeover" of the seat.

Right now, Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D) -- who nearly defeated Bunning in 2004 -- has declared his candidacy. Mongiardo will face either Attorney General Jack Conway or State Auditor Crit Luallen (D) -- both of whom are especially close allies (along with Rep. Ben Chandler (D) and Rep. John Yarmuth (D)), and only one of them will run. While I'm not as plugged-in to the KY scene over the past year, I would expect that Conway will be the one to face Mongiardo in the primary and there's I just think there's no way Mongiardo will beat him statewide.

Mongiardo ran a hell of a race in 2004 and almost beat Bunning (losing by one point), but he was the only Democrat of any stature to step-up that year. Democrats were, as a whole, very weak that year in Kentucky (and nationally) and no one wanted to run against an incumbent GOP senator during a presidential year with a gay marriage amendment on the ballot which was certain to drive conservatives to the polls.

But Mongiardo has alienated a good number of progressives since that run with his some of his painful anti-gay votes (among a number of items, while in the state Senate, Mongiardo was one of the actual co-sponsors of the gay marriage amendment, which passed very easily in 2004). Also, Mongiardo hails from Eastern Kentucky (Appalachia) and while he will dominate that area, he has no strong statewide base, at least compared to a Conway or Luallen.

In contrast, Conway is the state's 39-year-old attorney general who almost defeated then Rep. Anne Northup (R-KY) in 2002 during his first run for office. Since then, Conway carefully, and smartly, laid his path for higher office, resisting a great deal of pressure to run for Congress in 2004 and 2006 and for governor or lieutenant governor in 2007 (although the latter almost happened, but it's a long story).

Unlike Mongiardo, Conway hails from Louisville, a media market where about one-third of the state's Democrats reside (it may even be more now), and he's particularly close to both Democratic members of Congress -- Chandler (from Lexington) and Yarmuth (from Louisville) -- as well as Luallen and many of the state's former Democratic governors. I also don't believe that Gov. Steve Beshear (D) would step into the middle of a race between two his allies, even if one of them was his 2007 running mate (know that Beshear first asked Conway to run with him in 2007 (he declined) before he tapped Mongiardo). Also, Jack's paternal family is from western Kentucky, he garnered the largest percentage of the vote among all statewide Democrats in the 2007 general election (60.5 percent versus the 57.1 percent that re-elected Grayson), and he's from a very wealthy family of trial lawyers.

In my opinion, if Conway runs, he'll be the Democratic nominee. It will be a very hard-fought primary and probably very nasty, but Conway really has most of the advantages going in and he'd probably defeat Mongiardo 55-45, give or take. The same goes for the very popular Luallen, but I just don't think she'll make the run. Nor will Chandler as he loves his very safe House seat. (Disclosure: I'm personally close to Conway and Luallen, and managed Chandler's original House race, so please add that the mix when you digest this assessment.)

Ultimately, a Conway versus Grayson race would be one for the ages. Each is their party's coveted young superstar, they can both raise a ton of money, they come from their party's political stronghold, and it would be just an awesome race -- if you're a spectator. Also, neither would have to give-up their current statewide office to run, since their terms don't expire until 2011. The only polling I've seen so far shows that such a race is, as would be expected, a dead-heat.

McConnell and the GOP knows that Bunning would have no shot in a general election against Conway or Luallen or Mongiardo. He'd lose and probably by a fairly comfortable margin. So, their only hope is to get Bunning out the way and run Grayson, but since Grayson and Bunning are very close there's no chance he'd even consider his own primary challenge. If Grayson runs, it will be because Bunning withdraws. I don't see any other scenario.

However, today's news actually comes with some very important historial context that you must understand to fully appreciate the players and their tactics.

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Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "McConnell Makes Opening Chess Move To Force Bunning To Retire Or Face Primary Challenge?"