Newsy week for the senator

November 27, 2012 

It was a great Thanksgiving week. Most of us took the week off, or at least part of it. Washington was mostly empty of our politicians, so that they and even their staffers could evacuate the city and spend time back home with family. It wasn't supposed to be a heavy news week. But politics often has a way of ignoring the calendar.

Monday afternoon, Roll Call published a report indicating that two Republican Georgia congressmen are considering primary challenges to Saxby Chambliss in 2014. While that seems somewhat far away, building the proper coalition to run a statewide campaign against a two-term incumbent senator will use all of that. Roll Call indicated that Tom Price of Roswell and Paul Broun of Athens are considering the plunge.

To add extra intrigue to the possibilities, The Weekly Standard ran a story on Wednesday indicating that Karen Handel is also taking a look at the race. Handel's former campaign manager, Rob Simms, was quoted in the article as saying "She's considering it."

A Handel entry makes the calculus of a primary challenge a bit more intriguing. Both Price and Broun come from different flavors of the same D.C.-based wing of Georgia Republicans. While their geographic and idealistic bases differ dramatically, their fundraising bases do not. Contributors to Price or Broun would be having to make a choice. Right now, all three men largely share the same donor base.

Handel, on the other hand, has run statewide just two years ago, losing a primary by roughly 2,500 votes. That's two years more recently than Chambliss, who needed a runoff in 2008 to return to D.C., and an advantage over Price and Broun, who haven't yet run a statewide race.

Furthermore, her support -- presuming it has remained intact from 2010 -- is decidedly anti-establishment. During her gubernatorial race only Congressman Tom Price supporter Handel over Nathan Deal and the number of state House and Senate members who openly supported her candidacy can be counted on one hand. Yet despite the uphill climb, she still came within less than 1% of a primary victory.

There are others, from even farther outside the "establishment," who also are looking for a contender. There is also now a "Draft Barry Loudermilk for Senate" Facebook page, though there is no evidence that state Sen. Loudermilk is behind or has endorsed such an effort. Loudermilk hails from Cassville, in the heart of TEA Party-rich northwest Georgia. It's an area where many have likely made up their minds that they would like a new senator, and are now just searching for the right "conservative" to get behind.

And therein lies Chambliss' main problem, if he has one. The definition of "conservative" is in the eye of the beholder, and it seems to have substantially changed since he first defeated "establishment" Republican Bob Irvin during a 2002 primary.

Chambliss now faces critics from the right/far right over his willingness to form "gangs" to seek compromise on major issues such as immigration reform or his current quest to solve budget and spending issues to reduce the deficit. A current mantra accepted by much of the Republican base is that "compromise just means you're losing faster."

Yet those from more establishment quarters are also noting that Chambliss' formations of gangs have been less than successful. The gang formed to solve immigration reform ended with Chambliss abandoning the effort after grassroots Republicans booed him at the state GOP convention, and the current budget gang has been working for well over a year with much talk of "being close" but no finish line in sight.

Chambliss himself poured gasoline on this fire last week by telling Macon's WMAZ that "I care more about my country than I do a 20-year-old pledge." referring to his group's efforts to reach an agreement that may include more revenues going to the federal government, potentially violating a former pledge he made to Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. His statement has made national news and has become fodder for conservative activists seeking a proper challenger.

On Sunday night, WSB's Erick Erickson tweeted "When Saxby Chambliss was a Congressman, he kept an oversized signed copy of the ATR pledge at the front door of his campaign office." Erickson formerly worked on one of Chambliss' campaigns but has lately been stoking a challenge.

And yet, the cries for a challenge have been constant, almost since his last victory four years ago. Backing off of the immigration reform deal didn't gain many of his critics back, and leaving a long-term deficit deal undone is unlikely to do so.

Thus, Chambliss is in an unusual position. If he is weighing political calculation when deciding how far to push a deficit reform deal, he may find that his best solution is to come home with a deal that establishment Republicans and moderate independents can live with. He may have already lost the hard right. It may be time to lock in those who are conservative but want a government that can function.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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