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A Family Squabble in Georgia

Previewing the coming GOP primary fight to succeed Saxby Chambliss.

6:00 AM, Feb 18, 2013 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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“I have some discomfort with all Republican primaries because they’re all family squabbles,” said Tom Price, the 58-year-old Republican House member from north of Atlanta. “My brother and I used to fight almost daily,” Price, the middle child among five brothers and sisters, said. “My mom’s only prayer was, ‘Don’t hurt each other.’”

Georgia

Price will soon be deciding whether he wants to endure a political family squabble. Georgia has a newly open Senate seat, and Price is among several in the GOP strongly considering a bid. But he’s not quite there, yet. “Betty and I, my wife and I, honestly have not made a decision,” he told reporters Friday at a breakfast meeting sponsored by National Review.

Long before Republican Saxby Chambliss announced he wouldn’t seek a third Senate term in 2014, conservatives in the Peach State—particularly a few Republican House members—had already begun testing the waters to challenge him. When the 69-year-old Chambliss announced in January that he would retire rather than face a tough primary, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s top political correspondent, Jim Galloway, predicted the move would “immediately set off an avalanche” of Republicans jumping in. But three weeks later, the race to replace Chambliss is looking more like a slow and steady trickle.

Only two Republican candidates have officially entered the race: Congressman Paul Broun, who had been the most vocal about taking on Chambliss in a primary, and Congressman Jack Kingston, who announced his candidacy on Saturday. In addition to Price, Congressmen Phil Gingrey and Tom Graves are also considering getting in.

“Of course, I’ve talked to all of them and, you know, everybody’s being pretty coy right now,” said Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who has ruled out seeking the Senate seat himself. Other possible Republican candidates are Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and former secretary of state Karen Handel, who lost a close gubernatorial primary in 2010. A new poll of Republican voters released Friday shows Broun with an insignificant lead at 19 percent in a crowded field that included Gingrey (18 percent), Price (17 percent), and Kingston (13 percent). Thirty percent, meanwhile, said they weren't sure.

The Democratic bench for the Senate race is considerably thinner. One rising Democratic star named Kasim Reed, the young black mayor of Atlanta, has already taken himself out of the running. That leaves the only remaining white Democrat in the House delegation, John Barrow, who will have to decide if he’s better off defending his current seat for another cycle or launching a statewide race in a state that has grown increasingly Republican in the last 20 years.

Since 1996, Georgia has voted for the Republican in every presidential election. In 2002, Sonny Perdue won his bid for governor, the first Republican to serve in the office since Reconstruction. That same year, Chambliss defeated incumbent Democratic senator Max Cleland, and in 2004, Republican Johnny Isakson joined Chambliss in the Senate—two of Georgia’s four Republican senators to serve since the 19th century. Perdue was reelected in 2006 and then succeeded by Republican Nathan Deal in 2010. A generation ago, the only Republican in Georgia’s 10-member House delegation was Newt Gingrich. Today, the state has 14 House districts, 9 of them represented by Republicans. But if Georgia still looks like the reliably red state it’s been for the past decade, it may not be so assuredly Republican a decade from now.

The important factor is Georgia’s changing demographics. In 2001, 72 percent of the Georgia electorate was white, while 26 percent was black and less than 1 percent was Hispanic. To win statewide, Democrats needed a big chunk of that white vote, and, needless to say, Republican electoral success in Georgia has been marked by whites abandoning the Democrats. But those numbers are shifting. In 2012, whites were just 60 percent, while blacks made up 30 percent, and Hispanics 2 percent. There are probably fewer white Democrats in Georgia than ever before, but the party just doesn’t need as many white votes as it used to. If the trend continues, Democratic fortunes could improve.

All of which makes the 2014 Senate race, and particularly the GOP primary, important. One Republican activist put the stakes in perspective. “It would be nice to have an incumbent up in 2020 rather than another open seat,” he says. “Both age and extremism come into play.”

Of the three Republican congressmen still mulling a Senate run, Price is being the most forthcoming about his timeline. In a statement released Monday, he said he would put off making a decision until May. At a luncheon meeting at the Heritage Foundation last Tuesday, I asked Price why he was waiting to announce until then.

“The responsibilities that I’ve been given right now as vice-chair of the budget committee and the imperative of the challenges that we have as a country and the acceptance of that responsibility demand my attention there,” he said.

On Friday, Price described the moment a politician announces a campaign for higher office as a “red letter day.” “Everything else goes away after that date,” he said. “And so you lose all your focus on everything else, and I don’t think that’s a responsible thing to do right now.”

Price’s reluctance to jump in the race early—after all, there are nearly 20 months until Election Day 2014—has nevertheless surprised Georgia political observers, who say they sensed an announcement from Price soon after Chambliss’s withdrawal.

Gingrey and Graves may not follow Price’s lead in laying low. “I do think that when one of them breaks the logjam, that, you know, it will move a lot faster,” said Westmoreland. “Once the thing breaks and once somebody jumps out, I think they’re all going to have to do it, because if they don’t, if only one of them announces, they may line up all the donors.”

Sources say Phil Gingrey, whose metro Atlanta district borders Price’s, is anxious to run and being urged to do so by his wife. Members of his own staff, however, are encouraging him to take his time before getting in. Age may be one reason for his staff’s trepidation—Gingrey is 70 years old—but just as relevant may be his comment last month that failed 2012 Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri was “partly right” when Akin spoke about “legitimate rape,” pregnancy, and abortion. Gingrey, an OB-GYN, has argued he was misunderstood but the national media coverage of the impolitic statement has aides wanting to put as much distance as possible between those comments and any announcement about a Senate run.

A dark horse for the nomination could be 43-year-old Tom Graves. The north Georgia congressman is serving his second full term and identifies more directly from the Tea Party movement. With a shorter, more conservative record than many of his House colleagues, Graves could capitalize on the frustration with Washington’s “business as usual” that motivated talks of a primary challenge to Chambliss in the first place.

Then there are the congressmen already in the race. Jack Kingston, a longtime congressman from south Georgia, has two major challenges to his Senate candidacy. The first is his record. A House member since 1993, the 57-year-old Kingston has the least conservative record among the Georgia Republican delegation due largely to his votes for agricultural subsidies and other pork projects. The federal money kept him popular in his rural district, which has overwhelmingly reelected him year after year, but in a state with a strong conservative grassroots presence, those votes could mean trouble in a contested primary. Just as problematic may be his Savannah residence, since Kingston could struggle to get sufficient name identification in the metro Atlanta area, where the bulk of the state’s population resides. The same problem plagued Savannah-based state senator Eric Johnson in his unsuccessful 2010 bid for governor. Kingston’s early entry suggests he recognizes the need to raise enough money to get on air often in the expensive Atlanta media market.

Since 2007, Paul Broun, 66, has represented a mostly rural district east of Atlanta, earning a reputation as a constitutionalist conservative with a tendency toward the inflammatory. In 2008, shortly after the presidential election, Broun told the Associated Press in an interview that a proposal from Barack Obama to create a civilian national security force was “exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it’s exactly what the Soviet Union did.” Broun has also been vocally critical of the scientific theories of evolution and the Big Bang, calling them “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”

Westmoreland says Broun has a “core constituency” and a grassroots following across the state, but other Georgia Republicans say they don’t expect Broun to gather much support outside of his own district.

“I think Paul was intending on running whether Saxby retired or not,” Westmoreland says. “Well, now there’s probably going to be five alternatives, so, you know, it took a little bit of the bite out of it for Paul.”

So, too, could efforts from national conservatives to avoid disastrous Senate candidates. The Conservative Victory Project, an offshoot of the Karl Rove super PAC American Crossroads, aims to find and support electable conservative candidates. If Broun’s candidacy picks up steam, he could be a target. In a recent interview, American Crossroads CEO Steven Law said the organization hasn’t decided what role it will play in the Georgia Senate race. On Friday, Tom Price, who could benefit from support from an outside conservative group, spoke positively about Rove’s new effort.

“Republicans ought to be in the majority of the United States Senate,” he said when asked what he thought of the Conservative Victory Project. “We have lost seats that we should not have lost because of a failure of communication, a failure of message, a failure of coherence in campaigns. Now that’s not to slight anybody who steps up into the ring because it’s a tough, tough arena. But clearly we can’t continue the same processes we have in the past and expect to increase our numbers in order to help save the country. So I congratulate anybody who is willing to engage in the process and get conservative candidates through the process of the nomination and to the general election and out of the general election in a victorious way so that Senator Reid gets to say something other than this is what we’re doing today.”

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