HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — Some three years after helping to push baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning out of the U.S. Senate, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is singing his praises as a political leader who wasn't afraid to stand up for his beliefs in Washington, even when it meant standing alone.
McConnell, facing a GOP primary challenger and wanting to shore up support from Bunning devotees in Republican-rich northern Kentucky, used a lecture to praise Bunning's political accomplishments at Northern Kentucky University on Friday, part of a scholarly series looking at "the lives and careers of Kentucky's most influential senators."
When polls showed Bunning in danger of losing his Senate seat ahead of the 2010 election, McConnell joined other GOP leaders in pressuring the irascible Kentuckian to step aside, unknowingly creating a path for tea party darling Rand Paul to go to Washington.
McConnell took a hit when he tried to handpick Bunning's replacement in the Senate by recruiting a rising GOP star, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, to run. Bunning endorsed Paul in the GOP primary, giving Paul a needed boost to capture the nomination.
Despite the 81-year-old Bunning's hardball reputation in Washington, he remains popular among northern Kentucky Republicans, and McConnell knows that paying homage to him in this neck of the woods could have its benefits in both the primary and general election.
Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, a conservative who has drawn some tea party support, is running as a political outsider for the GOP nomination against McConnell. And Democratic front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, is ready to take on the eventual GOP nominee. In both races, Bunning could provide energy, finances and votes by calling on his staunchly conservative followers to get behind McConnell or Bevin. He hasn't yet done so and said Friday afternoon that he was not endorsing anyone.
McConnell described Bunning as a strong competitor in both sports and politics. Bunning played from 1955 to 1971, starting with the Detroit Tigers and then playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the L.A. Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. He threw no hitters in both leagues, including a perfect game for the Phillies on Father's Day 1964, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The right-hander retired with a career win-loss record of 224-184, a career ERA of 3.27 and 2855 strikeouts, according to MLB.com.
"On many occasions, Jim stood alone, ignoring the howls of critics and naysayers, relying only on his convictions and self-confidence," McConnell said. "As Jim has said, 'I have been booed by 60,000 fans in Yankee Stadium, standing alone on the mound, so I have never cared if I stood alone in the Congress, as long as I stood by my beliefs and my values.'"
Not long before Bunning left the Senate, Democrats had bemoaned him as unsympathetic to down-on-their-luck Americans when he single-handedly held up a $10 billion spending bill that provided money for jobless benefits. That, McConnell said, was perhaps the best-known example of Bunning's resolve.
"Ultimately, Jim forced a vote to ensure the measure was paid for," McConnell said.
Bunning, who sat on the front row and smiled occasionally during McConnell's lecture, had been widely considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent heading into the 2010 elections. With the GOP trying to retake majority control of the Senate that year, some Republicans urged Bunning not to seek a third term, fearing he couldn't hold the seat against a strong Democratic challenger. Bunning was reluctant to drop his re-election bid, but he had trouble raising campaign cash. He blamed McConnell and other national GOP leaders for drying up his fundraising and eventually stepped aside.
In the lecture, McConnell said that he has known Bunning since the early 1980s and that their political careers remain intertwined: Bunning's granddaughter, Amanda Bunning, now works for him.
He heaped further praise on Bunning, recalling the pitcher's competitive nature in the 1960s. During one game, Bunning quickly caught on to the fact that a Yankees coach was tipping off hitters to Bunning's fastball by whistling. The pitcher warned that if he heard that whistle one more time, he'd "drill" the next batter. Bunning made good on his promise — with a fastball sent squarely into the back of famed slugger Mickey Mantle.
Bunning served up plenty of "chin music" in politics, too, McConnell said, adding: "Mickey Mantle is not the only person with those initials to be plunked by Jim."