In politics, two years is the equivalent of two eternities. But already, signs are pointing to a Republican civil war headed Georgia’s way, settling into an orbit around the 2014 re-election bid of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
Seven days ago, just as they were about to fire up their turkeys, Chambliss’ assessment of Grover Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge allowed the state’s more fierce Republicans to cook their birds without an oven.
“I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” said Georgia’s senior senator, who has spent the past two years trying to broker a bipartisan deal in Congress to tackle a $16 trillion federal deficit.
Chambliss has spent the past week explaining the difference between increased federal revenue needed to buy down the debt, which he supports, and increased tax rates that he opposes. The senator even let it be known that he and Norquist had a friendly phone chat Monday night.
In the meantime, the names of potential GOP primary opponents to Chambliss have dropped like leaves. U.S. Reps. Tom Price of Roswell and Paul Broun of Athens each have declared that this wasn’t the proper season to discuss such things. But neither congressman ruled out the possibility.
A former aide to Karen Handel, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor, confirmed that she was giving the contest some thought. Erick Erickson, the editor of Redstate.com and an evening talk show host for AM750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB, is reported to have entered a period of “prayerful consideration” when it comes to his candidacy.
Mark Rountree, the GOP pollster based in Gwinnett County, says a handful of state lawmakers are also interested.
Each one of these potential candidates is in a position to become a critic not just of Chambliss, but of any of the many moves that Republicans must make over the next two years in order to restore their national competitiveness — whether the issue is fiscal responsibility, immigration or abortion.
Chambliss, in fact, is likely to be cast as the personification of those adjustments.
Martha Zoller, the former radio talk show host and congressional candidate, is currently acting as a liaison for Gov. Nathan Deal with tea party organizations across the state. Chambliss has been the primary focus of conversation at her most recent meetings.
“They don’t like what he said about throwing the Grover Norquist pledge out because they support it, by and large,” she said. But it is the final agreement that Republicans and Democrats cut on the deficit, and Chambliss’ proximity to it, that will seal their opinion of the senator.
“They just want to see the deal,” Zoller said.
Ousting an incumbent in a primary, whether Democrat or Republican, is never easy. Chambliss hasn’t committed any of the egregious sins that usually apply, GOP strategist Heath Garrett said. Chambliss hasn’t, for instance, become a permanent resident of Washington like the recently deposed Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
Richard Mourdock, who defeated Lugar in that state’s GOP primary, short-circuited his chances for entry into the U.S. Senate by volunteering the opinion that pregnancies resulting from rape were a “gift from God” and shouldn’t be eligible for abortion. In Missouri, Republican Todd Akin similarly saw his Senate ambitions vanish when he wandered into a discussion of “legitimate rape.”
Both men will serve as lessons in the dangers of overly heated rhetoric in 2014, Garrett predicted. “There’s a practicality to some of these movements that may end up helping a Saxby Chambliss even if, short-term, there’s a lot of sound and fury,” he said.
Tom Perdue, Chambliss’ chief political consultant, declared that by the time the campaign begins in earnest, the longer aims of any deficit deal will be apparent, quieting the current rumblings.
“Saxby’s going to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the country. If in the short run it doesn’t look like it’s politically popular or expedient, and people want to jump on that, that’s their right,” Perdue said. “But in the end, most every one of them will be supporting Saxby for re-election.”
One person who could help determine whether Chambliss faces token opposition or a stampede in two years is the governor.
But keep in mind that the Deal crowd is still angry with Chambliss’ chief consultant. Two years ago, after that heated gubernatorial runoff with Handel, Perdue suggested that Deal should step down as the Republican nominee because of his failure to disclose — in a timely manner — his perilous personal financial situation.
Deal will also be up for re-election in 2014, so any support he might offer Chambliss is already likely to be limited. And if a bear of a tea party movement is chasing both men, the governor may well decide that he doesn’t have to outrun the bear. He just needs to outrun Chambliss.
Perdue acknowledged but discounted any tension between himself and the governor’s camp. “Nathan and Saxby have their own good relationship apart from me,” he said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider