Charlie Harper: Slow start to Senate race

February 19, 2013 

The morning that Saxby Chambliss announced his plans to retire from the U.S. Senate, all potential would-be senators were put on notice that they had some decisions to make. Conventional wisdom was that they had to make them quickly. The most recent evidence was provided by now second- term Senator Johnny Isakson, who announced his intention to run for his seat just days after Senator Zell Miller announced he would not seek another term.

There are advantages to being first. It lets others know who they will have to go through in order to achieve their goal and ambition.

Now that the initial shock of adrenaline and testosterone has died down, it seems that many are more content to sit back and wait rather than to rush in and commit to a full two year campaign. Only Congressman Paul Broun has made an official announcement of his plans to run. Congressman Jack Kingston - who missed much of the earlier direct jockeying as he was leading a congressional delegation to India when Chambliss made his announcement - has shifted staff over to full time fundraising and told a Forsyth County GOP gathering Saturday he was 99% sure he would be in the race.

Tom Price, who began making calls to supporters on the day of Chambliss' announcement indicating he was likely to announce shortly has since dialed back expectations, stating that he will focus on his House Budget Committee duties until May. Congressman Phil Gingrey is also actively making calls and telling supporters he is taking a hard look at a Senate run, but has given no timetable on a decision.

Others, including some who have put out statements indicating no interest, still are keeping their options open. As one inside observer put it: "It's like a green white checkered flag at Talladega. There are a lot of cars up ahead and there's going to be a crash. It's what position they're in when that happens that matters."

If it looks like some are having cold feet in making their decision, there is a more recent case study to give them pause than Isakson's 2004 Senate race. The 2010 gGovernor's race was also a two-year campaign, with a slate of early candidates, each having full-time staff and mounting a strategy to take on those who announced early.

Then, roughly one year before qualifying, front running Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle decided to end his bid for governor citing medical reasons. He chose instead to run again for re-election, causing the two candidates who had announced for his seat to ultimately re-evaluate their plans. Cagle ended up running for the Republican nomination unopposed, and the man who is now governor entered the race late after much money and energy had already been spent by the early candidates on strategies for a race that never was.

The 2014 race has similar potential for new entries. Cagle, who was initially rumored to be taking a serious look at the campaign, has been quiet, focusing on his Senate duties for a role he just spent two years battling to regain. Unlike potential competitors from Congress, Cagle already has a statewide campaign network and has appeared on a statewide ballot twice, earning 54% of the vote in 2010.

Not only does he have no hurry to enter, but a calculating person would say he needs to focus on making sure the Senate is no longer described with the term "dysfunctional" after his two year battle over leadership. Waiting only benefits Cagle.

And then, in the back of candidate's minds, there is always the possibility of the biggest shoe of all dropping. If Chambliss is as disgusted with Washington as his announcement says he is, there is always the possibility that he could leave office early. Under this scenario, the governor would appoint a successor who would then have to stand for re-election. This could allow Governor Deal, who has thus far refused to embrace the candidacy of any of the potential candidates, to essentially clear the field well into a contested campaign after many have given up the ability to return to their current jobs.

The smart money said many would enter quickly. Candidates looking at a risk-reward scenario are being a bit more prudent on their timing.

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

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