Burris and Bunning: The Immovable Clowns of the Senate

It's easy to spot a political embarrassment, but getting rid of one isn't always as simple—something that both parties in the U.S. Senate are now being reminded of.

Democrats would just as soon be rid of Roland Burris, the Blagojevich-tainted appointee who is now the subject of investigations by both the Senate ethics committee and a county attorney in Illinois, but are probably stuck with him through next year. And Republicans would be equally thrilled to see Jim Bunning, who forecasted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's imminent death last weekend (and then misspelled her name in the obligatory non-apology apology statement that followed), walk away but will be lucky if he doesn't return for another six-year term in January 2011.

For Democrats, Burris' lingering presence in the Senate ensures that his ever-shifting explanations of the circumstances of his appointment will stay in the news, potentially jeopardizing what would otherwise be a relatively safe Senate election for them in Illinois next year. Combined with a national climate that, if history holds, will favor the G.O.P., the constant reminder of Blagojevich's sins (many ignored by his Democratic colleagues for years) could allow an opening in Illinois for a Republican victory. Already, it seems likely that Mark Kirk, a suburban Chicago congressman with a somewhat moderate profile, will seek the G.O.P. nomination.

About the only thing that seems likely now is that Burris won't seek a full-term in 2010. On this matter, he really has no choice, with his party's establishment and public opinion now aligning strongly against him. At the same time, Burris' exceedingly high opinion of himself and his place in the political world, suggests that if he senses even centimeter-wide opening come early ‘10, he'll still end up running for the seat. Still, if he were to run, he'd almost certainly lose in the Democratic primary.

But the goal for Democrats is to move Burris out well before ‘10, and that just doesn't seem likely. Certainly, he can't be shamed into resigning (as Dick Durbin indicated to reporters on Tuesday afternoon), and arranging some kind of golden parachute would look terrible, given the suspicion that he acquired the seat in the first place through a quid pro quo arrangement. In theory, the Senate could expel him, but (a) first, the lengthy, months-long ethics committee probe must be conducted; and (b) absent a criminal indictment, the result of such an investigation is much more likely to be a reprimand, like the one the disgraced Bob Torricelli received in 2002. Perhaps the prosecutor in Sagamon County (Illinois) now investigating Burris will produce formal charges, but this, too, is month away and unlikely.

Realistically, the best Democrats may be able to hope for is a stiff rebuke of Burris by the ethics committee, one strong enough to disabuse him once and for all of any notion of running in ‘10. Then, they can hope that he'll serve out his term quietly, giving them a chance to make the Illinois electorate forget about the Blagojevich mess before he leaves.

Then there's the G.O.P.'s black eye, Bunning, who has made it very clear that he'll be running for a third term from Kentucky in ‘10.

The 77-year-old Bunning has always been a tough sell to Kentucky's electorate, despite the ideological congruity between him and most voters (and despite his celebrity – he was a Hall of Fame pitcher before entering politics). In 1998, after representing a conservative House district for six terms, Bunning edged out Democratic Congressman Scotty Baesler by fewer than 7,000 votes to claim his Senate seat. In 2004, while George W. Bush was massacring John Kerry in the state, Bunning won a second term over Daniel Mongiardo by fewer than 25,000 votes – a two-percent margin.

Starting with that '04 campaign, Bunning's reputation has been in precipitous decline. During the race, he insinuated that Mongiardo, an unmarried physician, was gay and likened him to one of Saddam Hussein's sons. At the height of the campaign, he also admitted that he hadn't read a newspaper for weeks and then participated in the lone televised debate via satellite from Washington – where, it was later revealed, he had read some of his responses from a teleprompter. Without Bush's strength at the top of the ticket, it seems unlikely that Bunning would have survived in '04.

Since then, he has absented himself from the Senate without explanation (saying only that "I have another life besides the U.S. Senate), been named one of the "five worst senators" by Time, and fallen further into disfavor with his state's voters. It was enough for national Republicans to try to prod him earlier this year not to seek re-election in ‘10.

But that maneuver has backfired. One potential replacement, Kentucky Senate President David Williams, has stepped forward, but Bunning is now threatening to sue the National Republican Senatorial Committee if they back Williams. Clearly, Bunning will not be leaving voluntarily in ‘10. Obviously, this is an exasperating situation for Republicans, who would be strongly favored to retain the seat with a non-Bunning nominee but who may well lose it if the incumbent is on the ballot in November '10.

Convincing primary voters to be this pragmatic, though, can be a challenge. Republicans faced a similar situation back in '02, when New Hampshire's enigmatic Bob Smith—who'd embarrassed himself with two hopelessly short-lived presidential campaigns (one for the G.O.P. nomination in 2000, the other for the Constitution Party's nod) – seemed destined to lose to Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen. So the national G.O.P. recruited Congressman John Sununu into the race. In the end it worked, but Sununu's triumph was hard-fought and in doubt until the very end; in the primary, he beat Smith by nine points, then he went on to score a five-point win over Shaheen.

Sununu, the son of a former governor, was blessed with a last name familiar to just about every New Hampshire Republican. And since his district spanned half the state, he was already familiar to half of the '02 primary electorate. A lesser-known challenger, the primary results suggest, might well have lost to Smith. Republicans hoping to take Bunning out in a '10 primary should keep this in mind. They might also consider last year's Republican congressional primary in Alaska, in which Rep. Don Young – who was regarded by the national party as doomed in the general election – edged out his challenger, Sean Parnell. (Perhaps thanks to Sarah Palin, Young managed to survive the general election, too.)

If there's a silver lining for both parties, it's this: at least they'll have the other party's embarrassment to kick around for a while longer.