A political guessing game

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 28, 2013 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss has started a political guessing game that will be interesting to watch over the next 21 months.

The two-term Republican's decision to vacate his U.S. Senate seat in 2014 has set in play a game that could alter the political landscape across the state.

"It has stirred things up, hasn't it?" said Joey Loudermilk, a Harris County commissioner and Aflac's general counsel.

Yes, it has.

And depending on what happens, the ripples could reach Columbus and West Georgia.

At least four Republican congressman are reportedly exploring the possibility of stepping out of the House and into the Senate, the path Chambliss took in 2002. One of those is Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who represents a district that roughly stretches from north Columbus to the Atlanta airport.

But what about the Democratic side?

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, an Albany Democrat who also calls Columbus home, will not commit to a run for the Senate. But he won't rule it out, either.

"Obviously, it is something people have been calling me about," Bishop said. "… You never rule anything out this early in the game."

And it is early in the game.

Bishop said it is not a given that the person who replaces Chambliss will be a Republican. Some national Democrats believe Chambliss has opened the door for Democrats to pick up a seat.

Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told a McClatchy reporter last week that a divisive Republican primary could work in the Democrats' favor.

"There are already several reports of the potential for a divisive primary that will push Republicans to the extreme right," Cecil said. "Regardless, there's no question that the demographics of the state have changed and Democrats are gaining strength. This will be a top priority."

Ask Bishop if he thinks a Democrat can win the seat, and he is quick to answer.

"Yes," Bishop said. "Sen. Chambliss has been a moderate Republican, and I think some moderate Democrats would be appealing to the people of Georgia. It is all about values -- God, country, work, family and guns. Those are the middle American values."

One of the things that could keep Bishop in the House is his seniority and age.

"I am no spring chicken," said Bishop, who turns 66 next week.

He is also in his 21st year in Congress, and has a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

While we are asking, might as well ask Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson if she is interested in a statewide run for the U.S. Senate.

"No," she said.

Tomlinson said she wants to win a second term as mayor in 2014, so she is not interested.

She said it would be good for Columbus if Bishop or Westmoreland could win the Senate seat.

"Columbus would be fortunate in that situation," she said. "It would only bode well for us if the next senator had a direct relationship to Columbus."

While the Democrats smell opportunity, the Republicans are lining up to move into a position that clearly favors one of them. Every official elected statewide in Georgia is a Republican.

You have to like those odds if you are a Republican running statewide in 2014.

Consider what would happen if Westmoreland left his congressional seat for a Senate run.

That would open another door for state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who represents a district that includes much of the southern tip of Westmoreland's 3rd Congressional district, to mount a U.S. House run.

"I am not even going to speculate about that," said McKoon, who is leading the General Assembly fight for tougher ethics laws for lobbyists and lawmakers.

"My focus is on getting the ethics legislation passed," McKoon said.

A strong ethics package would be a solid platform to make the jump from Atlanta to Washington, right?

So, depending on what happens, McKoon's seat may come into play. If McKoon were to leave the General Assembly for a Washington run, that would open up his state Senate seat. Which brings us back to Loudermilk, a Harris County commissioner since 2008.

Loudermilk considered a run for the state Senate in 2010 when McKoon was first elected. If the seat opened, would he jump in?

Loudermilk just laughs.

That is the intriguing part about this. A U.S. senator has made his intentions known and that decision will be felt in a number of places.

Where?

Who knows. But it will be fun to watch.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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