Retiring Sen. Jim Bunning passed over the GOP establishment's pick to replace him in Washington and endorsed outsider Rand Paul on Wednesday.
Bunning remains popular in Kentucky even though he became something of a pariah in Washington earlier this year when he single-handedly held up a $10 billion spending bill that had money for jobless benefits.
He said in his endorsement that Kentucky residents need a strong, principled conservative to stand up to liberals and establishment politicians in Washington.
"Dr. Paul will be his own man in Washington, not beholden to the special interests and beltway insiders who come looking for handouts on a daily basis," Bunning said in a written statement.
The endorsement by Bunning, a Kentucky sports icon enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, is a major boost for Paul. He was once considered a longshot but now leads his Republican opponents in the May 18 primary by double digits in public opinion polls.
Bunning's backing is key in heavily Republican northern Kentucky, an area that Paul's chief GOP rival, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, had counted on winning.
Grayson campaign manager Nate Hodson objected to Bunning's endorsement, saying Paul has "strange views" that do not match those of most Kentuckians.
"We've always respected Senator Bunning's fiscally conservative views, but even as a major league pitcher, he'd occasionally misfire," Hodson said. "He is flat-out wrong about Rand Paul."
Bunning said in his statement that Paul is the only conservative in the race who will stand against bailouts and wasteful spending and for traditional values and the rights of the unborn.
"Dr. Paul shares those same core values and has the courage and conviction necessary to make sure the voices of Kentucky's workers, families, retirees, and children are heard in Washington," Bunning said.
Five Republicans and five Democrats are vying to replace Bunning, who opted not to seek a third term.
Grayson was the GOP establishment's early choice, swiftly racking up endorsements from Republican leaders including former Vice President Dick Cheney. Paul, an eye surgeon who campaigned as a political outsider, has picked up some key endorsements of his own, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
Paul also has the endorsement of his father, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
"It's an enormous honor for me to be endorsed by Sen. Bunning," Paul said Wednesday. "He has demonstrated that he's unafraid to stand on principle. And that's something I respect."
Both Paul and Grayson had hoped for Bunning's endorsement and had lavished him with praise in recent weeks. Western Kentucky University political scientist Scott Lasley said the Bunning endorsement will energize the Senate campaign, but does not assure victory.
"It definitely makes great theater, but to what extent it makes good politics is probably going to be clear over the next five weeks," he said.
Democrats across the country bemoaned Bunning as unsympathetic to down-on-their-luck Americans when he held up the bill with money for those without jobs. But in the conservative swath of northern Kentucky that the irascible Republican calls home, he was heralded as a hero.
Bunning had been widely considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent heading into this year's elections, and with the GOP trying to retake majority control of the Senate, Republican leaders encouraged him not to seek a third term.
Many feared he couldn't hold the seat against either of two prominent Democratic candidates, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway.
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