Sen. Saxby Chambliss is hearing thunder from the right — and plenty of it — as he prepares for a possible run for re-election in 2014.
It’s been widely rumored that Rep. Tom Price, a Roswell Republican, has been considering a challenge to Chambliss in the GOP primary. That rumor picked up more strength when Price recently tried, and failed, to win a leadership position in the U.S. House’s Republican caucus.
Two other names are also being floated as candidates who might take on Chambliss in the primary: Rep. Paul Broun of Athens and former secretary of state Karen Handel, who lost her high-paying job at the Susan G. Komen foundation when she tried to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.
Chambliss, a white-haired attorney from Moultrie, has often been described as “the senator from central casting” because he looks like every stereotypical Southern senator you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie. During his two terms in the Senate, he has picked up a reputation for expertise on such issues as terrorism and the federal deficit.
It’s that work on the deficit that is bringing out the opposition in his own party. Chambliss has shown a willingness to reach out to Democratic colleagues and make a deal on reducing the massive national debt, which is an unpardonable sin to tea partyers and other conservative factions in the GOP.
That kind of moderation can be dangerous to an incumbent senator. Just a few months ago, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar was defeated in a Republican primary by a tea party candidate, thus ending a distinguished Senate career that spanned 36 years.
Chambliss is facing similar pushback here because of his widely reported role as a member of the “Gang of Six,” a group of Democratic and Republican senators at the center of negotiations on a deficit reduction deal. Chambliss has also come under partisan fire for being open to the idea of compromising on the issue of immigration reform.
“Sometimes when he sees himself being a statesman, conservatives see him as being a sellout,” said Virginia Galloway, the state director for Americans for Prosperity, in a recent interview.
Erick Erickson, a radio talk show host and occasional commentator on CNN, is another Georgia Republican who has been calling for the ouster of Chambliss for not being sufficiently conservative.
No matter who qualifies to oppose the senator in the Republican primary, it will be one of the most closely watched races in the next election cycle.
That national spotlight would become even brighter if Broun is the one who emerges as the top challenger to Chambliss. Broun is one of those politicians that reporters love because the most outrageous statements come out whenever he opens his mouth.
Broun has compared the Obama administration to Nazi Germany. He has agreed that President Barack Obama could stage a pandemic as an excuse to declare martial law. At a town hall meeting last February, one of the audience members asked, “Who’s going to shoot Obama?” Broun was initially reported as laughing at that question, but later issued a statement calling it “abhorrent.”
When a videotape surfaced several weeks ago of Broun denouncing evolution, embryology and the Big Bang Theory as “lies straight from the pit of hell,” the video clip became a YouTube sensation and bolstered Broun’s national celebrity in both right-wing and left-wing forums.
If Broun does decide to run against Chambliss, you can bet that his every word will be eagerly reported and dissected on Fox News and MSNBC. I don’t know if Georgians should be excited or appalled at that prospect.
Chambliss sounds like he’s already gearing up for a rousing primary race. In an interview with a Macon TV station, he trashed one of the icons of conservative Republicans, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
“I care too much about my country,” Chambliss said in explaining why he did not support Norquist’s pledge never to vote for a tax increase. “I care a lot more about it than I do about Grover Norquist ... I’m willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves.”
Those are fighting words from the state’s senior senator. They could be a prelude to the bloodiest political fight we’ve seen in quite some time.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.