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Bunning Retirement Might Not Save GOP in Kentucky

I know that everyone’s talking about that other retirement. But this one could potentially be big news too: Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning giving up on his bid for-election in 2010.

It’s widely assumed that if the retirement goes through (and so far, the reporting has been a bit speculative), that this will be a boon to the GOP’s chances of retaining their seat in Kentucky, with Bunning replaced most likely by Kentucky Secretary of State Tray Grayson. I don’t really debate this, particularly after Bunning raised barely more than $250,000 in the first quarter, and had been even with or slightly or behind most Democratic opponents in recent polls.

Grayson, however, hasn’t been polling much better. A PPP poll (.pdf) earlier this month but Grayson 6 points behind U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, and 4 points behind Attorney General Jack Conway, although he was 4 points ahead of another declared entrant, Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo (who narrowly lost to Bunning in 2004). A Research 2000 poll, meanwhile, had Grayson essentially tied against the three likely Democratic opponents.

These polls may slightly underestimate Grayson’s standing because his name recognition is a bit weaker than that of some of his Democratic rivals. What people might not realize, however, is that Kentucky, while being a somewhat conservative state, is also still a rather Democratic state, at least in terms of is voters’ declared party preferences. Gallup gives Democrats a 13-point party identification advantage in Kentucky (counting “leaners”), which places it roughly in the middle of the pack nationally. No, Kentucky is not going to vote for certain types of Democrats — particularly liberal, northern Democrats named “Barack Obama” who gave the state the cold shoulder. But it elects plenty of moderate-to-conservative Democrats to statewide and national offices, like its Governor Steve Beshear, as well as Mongiardo, Conway and Chandler. Democrats also have a 65-35 advantage in the Kentucky State House, although Republicans control the State Senate.

This race, in other words, looks to be a toss-up whether or not Bunning retires, perhaps tilting slightly for or against Grayson based on which Democrat wins that party’s nomination.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.