Saxby Chambliss’s (GOP) primary concerns

November 30, 2012

Sen. Saxby Chambliss's (R-Ga.) decision to publicly break with Grover Norquist last week has momentarily turned him into one of the top targets of the 2014 GOP primaries.

To a surprising extent, really.

In fact, even before Chambliss said in a local TV interview that he wouldn't be bound by Norquist's pledge to not raise taxes, a few members of the state's House delegation -- including Reps. Paul Broun and Tom Price -- were moving toward challenging him in a primary, as was former secretary of state Karen Handel.


Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) in 2002, when he defeated Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) in a closely watched and brutal contest. (Erik S. Lesser -- AP)

After Chambliss did the deed, top conservative blogger Erick Erickson also tossed his hat in the ring of potential challengers, though he eventually said early Friday that he won't be running.

The amount of interest in running against Chambliss, in fact, has far surpassed the amount of public interest in running against any other GOP senator -- including another pledge-defector, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has long been seen as the most likely tea party target of the Class of 2014.

Graham certainly has done more to inflame the party base, but Chambliss could actually wind up being more vulnerable. For a few reasons:

1. While it's not clear who might have the wherewithal to challenge Graham, there are plenty of candidates ready to challenge Chambliss. Price and Broun both have very conservative records, and Handel, of course, has a statewide resume.

2. Chambliss had a weak showing in 2008. Despite being an incumbent, he ran a few points behind Sen. John McCarin (R-Ariz.) at the top of the ticket and actually needed to go to a runoff to keep his seat against Democrat Jim Martin, who wasn't seen as a top-tier opponent. (Chambliss did beat Martin by double-digits in the runoff, for what it's worth.)

3. He's from South Georgia. Chambliss is from Moultrie, which is very far from Atlanta and from most of the state's population centers. Thus, it seems logical that a candidate from the Atlanta area could beat him by regionalizing the race.

4. He's got a tone problem. While Chambliss has got a largely conservative record, he's hardly a conservative favorite. In fact, when it comes to the National Journal vote ratings, Chambliss has scored more conservative than Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) the last two years, and he was tied for the most conservative senator in 2010.

Chambliss's problem is he doesn't talk the conservative talk. He likes to instead talk about compromise, and he has flirted with middle ground on issues like immigration and now the "fiscal cliff." He was a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Six" during 2011 debt ceiling negotiations and is on the current bipartisan "Gang of Eight" for the "fiscal cliff" talks.

The fact that he was the first big-name Republicans to break with Norquist over the holiday weekend is exactly the kind of thing that makes some Georgia conservatives wary of him.

"He does not know how to talk to Georgia Republicans," said one neutral Georgia GOP strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the race candidly. "This whole thing with Norquist -- why bother? You’re just kicking sand at people who already hate you."

Chambliss political adviser Tom Perdue said his candidate isn't going to change who he is for a reelection campaign.

"You can do your job and react to the interim political winds, or you can take a long-term view, and Saxby takes a long-term view," Perdue said. "In taking that long-term view, there are always some Republicans that offends, because Saxby has always in his time in Congress tried to work with Democrats."

Perdue added: "There are people that just want Saxby to blast the Democrats; that’s not his style. We’ve seen what total gridlock in Washington can do."

(Side note: Another GOP senator who refused to change his compromise rhetoric in the face of a primary? Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who was ousted earlier this year.)

All of that said, Chambliss is hardly Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to the tea party and the conservative base -- at least not right now. Both the Club for Growth and the Tea Party Express say they aren't focused on Chambliss at this time.

"We are not going to get distracted by a lot of bluster," said TPX founder Sal Russo. "There is a big difference between backing off the Norquist pledge and voting for destructive economic policies."

And with so many big names looking at the race, that could also mean there will be a crowded primary, which would significantly improve the incumbent's chances. While Price and Handel likely wouldn't run against one another (Price backed Handel for governor), either one of them could very well be joined by Broun, a lone-ranger type who likely wouldn't be scared away by the party establishment. (Broun, in fact, first won his seat by beating an establishment candidate in a special election.)

So far, we don't have great recent polling when it comes to Chambliss's personal brand, but much of the polling from the past suggests he's not overly popular, and people view him less favorably than Isakson. So this race will evolve as Chambliss gets into reelection mode, and he builds his case.

But with so many big-name politicians stepping forward very early in the process, this may be the incumbent Senate primary to watch.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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