Chambliss’ Exit Shakes Up Georgia Senate Race

Jessica Taylor January 25, 2013 · 2:38 PM EDT

Georgia will be on a lot of Republican, and maybe even Democratic, minds all of a sudden, following GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s surprise Friday announcement that he wouldn’t seek a third term.

The state’s senior senator had often stoked conservative ire with his willingness to work across the aisle, and there was already heavy chatter in D.C. and the Peach State about a possible primary challenge to Chambliss from the right, mainly centering on Reps. Tom Price and Paul Broun as the most likely contenders.

Still, the Republican’s decision still comes as a shock, given behind-the-scenes moves Chambliss had been making to ease a challenge. He reached out to tea party groups in the state in recent weeks and months, had begun raising money, and as recently as yesterday, according to one source, his advisers were talking seriously about his re-election campaign.

Now, Georgia insiders agree the field is wide open, with several conservative favorites sure to be weighing bids. Add to the list most of the state’s GOP congressional delegation: in addition to Price and Broun, some sources speculate Reps. Lynn Westmoreland, Tom Graves, Phil Gingrey and even Jack Kingston might weigh a bid. If any or all jump in, it won’t just be a crowded GOP senate primary, but would have ripple effects down to crowded primary races for their solidly Republican House seats.

Price has the biggest war chest, with $1.6 million in his coffers at the end of the year, and could be the best positioned of any member in the delegation. He has legitimate conservative credentials and has been a leader in the House, even though he lost his bid for House Republican Conference Chairman earlier this year.

Broun was already making waves to jump in against Chambliss, but he could have some handicaps. He isn’t known as the best fundraiser and could need outside groups -- he is a favorite of the Club for Growth -- to help him, according to several GOP insiders. But if there are several acceptable candidates in the race, those groups could be more hesitant to get involved.

Westmoreland could also take a look at it, but at least one Georgia source doesn’t expect him to run, citing fundraising as a barrier. Gingrey also could weigh a run, but the OBGYN’s recent comments on rape and abortion -- the GOP’s Achilles heel in 2012 -- would likely haunt him. Graves and Kingston could be in the mix too, according to several sources, but may be less willing than others to leave their safe seats for a statewide bid, where they’re less well-known.

Savvy state insiders also believe that former two-term governor Sonny Perdue, Attorney General Sam Olens and former secretary of state Karen Handel, who narrowly lost the runoff for her party’s gubernatorial nomination last year, are also possible candidates, though Handel could well look at Price’s 6th District seat if the congressman runs for Senate. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, an ambitious pol, could look at a run too, and there was already an online effort to draft state Sen. Barry Loudermilk to run against Chambliss.

Another important pivot in Georgia politics -- the now-open Senate seat should take pressure off Gov. Nathan Deal’s re-election race. The first-term governor had fallen from grace with some conservatives after he tried to push through a one cent sales tax increase to fund transportation projects. The ballot measure failed handily last July. There had been rumblings of unrest with the governor, though most daggers were still focused toward Chambliss. Now, with a shiny open Senate seat, Deal seems much better off.

National Democrats were immediately bullish on their opportunity in Georgia, but there’s little evidence they should be. On one hand, with a Senate map stacked squarely against them, Chambliss’s exit does give them a chance to play offense.

Rep. John Barrow (D) would likely be their biggest get, but the Blue Dog Democrat has resisted overtures to run statewide before, even though statewide demographics could be friendlier for him than his own Augusta-area district, which GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried by 12 points, compared to his 8-point victory statewide.

On Friday, Barrow said in a statement that “at this time,” he had “no plans to run for anything else than re-election in the 12th district.”

The conservative Democrat is a savvy politician, but in a state that’s still solidly red, Democrats would need Republicans to nominate a flawed candidate to have a shot. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed could be another Democratic recruitment target, but the African-American politician could be better off waiting until later in the decade when the Peach State’s demographics should shift more in Democrats’ favor, and as mayor of one of the largest cities in the South, he could have a bigger platform staying in Atlanta.

In our initial Senate ratings, which appear in our current newsletter, we rate the Georgia Senate seat as Currently Safe Republican. Chambliss’s retirement does nothing to change that rating right now.