National pundits are falling all over themselves trying to establish who will be in the presidential horse race for 2016. Meanwhile in Congress, those elected in 2010 are still trying to solve the fiscal cliff before the new year and the class of 2012 take over. Yet with much remaining to be done, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss continues to try to reach a Gang of 60 from his Gang of Six.
At the same time, he's now watching his back. The race for 2014, when Chambliss will stand for re-election, is forming now.
Joshua Miller of Roll Call, the insiders newspaper of Capitol Hill, frames the race rather nicely in a story posted Monday evening. In it he calls Chambliss "arguably the senator most exposed to a primary challenge." He quotes conservative activists such as the TEA Party Patriots' Debbie Dooley as saying Chambliss is "not very popular among conservatives in the grass roots." Virginia Galloway was a bit more harsh, stating that "sometimes when he sees himself being a statesman, conservatives see him as being a sellout."
Those are tough words for a two-term senator who was once the darling of Republicans when he managed to take away a Democratic U.S. Senate seat from former Sen. Max Cleland. Chambliss was virtually anointed by George W. Bush in his first Senate Republican primary and handily defeated longtime Republican activist Bob Irvin as Republican leaders and grassroots fell in line behind the president. Now, 12 years later, many of those activists appear restless, and are more circumspect than appreciative of the word "seniority."
Sixth District Rep. Tom Price of Roswell is the subject of the most speculation as to the person who would primary Chambliss. A medical doctor who has been a leader of the fight against the president's health care reform law, Price recently lost his bid to become House conference chairman against a candidate backed by Speaker John Boehner - who is a close personal friend of Chambliss.
Price has spent the last couple of years positioning himself as an outsider in Washington, and to some extent here in Georgia as well. He was the only Georgia congressman who backed Karen Handel over Nathan Deal in the 2010 primary. He more recently hired Herman Cain's presidential press spokesperson Ellen Carmichael, who works the TEA Party crowd through social media quite handily. He rejected an offer from Boehner to take a ceremonial leadership position if he would end his challenge for the House Conference Chair, demonstrating he will stand up to authority. All boosting his credibility with those who would consider supporting a primary challenge.
Price, however, has been mainstream enough in Congress that his candidacy would not likely be considered fringe, and thus not necessarily a threat to Republicans losing the seat to a yet unidentified Democrat in November. But another possible Republican challenger has Democrats suddenly motivated to consider finding an "A-team" candidate in case this race develops along the lines of recent Senate races in Indiana and Missouri.
Congressman Paul Broun has also been sending some signals that he is considering a primary challenge. Broun recently made news for a 45-minute speech at a sportsman's dinner held at a district church where he proclaimed evolution as "lies from the pit of hell." Broun remains popular with social conservatives and strict constitutionalists. His record could get him nominated as "congressman most likely to vote no." He is the antithesis of Chambliss' efforts to work across the aisle in efforts to solve large problems such as immigration reform and budget/deficit issues.
The race would be a study in contrasts and likely determine the future of the Republican Party in Georgia, but possibly give Democrats a jump start on rebuilding their party infrastructure, regardless if Broun were successful or not.
Is the Broun rumor credible? Broun's own office refuses to tamp it down. In Miller's Roll Call article we have the most concrete evidence yet that this is under strong consideration, via Broun spokesperson Meridith Griffanti saying, "Dr. Broun is not running for Senate at this time." "At this time" is a key non-denial statement of denial.
If Price or Broun chooses to run for U.S. Senate, it will be Georgia's headline political story for the next two years. If both were to choose to run it could change much of Georgia's political landscape, opening two safe Republican seats for competition and a myriad of lower-level offices as the political dominoes begin to fall.
In the meantime, Chambliss and the rest of Congress have Thanksgiving break before a return to Washington and a four-week grind to find solutions to the fiscal cliff. World international markets are anxiously awaiting that outcome. Georgia Republicans are watching closel, too. What is ultimately in that solution will likely determine if Chambliss is primaried, and if so, by whom.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.