WASHINGTON — Citing frustration with the Obama administration and congressional gridlock, Georgia’s senior senator, Republican Saxby Chambliss announced Monday that he won’t seek re-election next year, dealing a blow to Senate Republicans while bolstering Democratic hopes of regaining the seat after a 12-year absence.
With 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate behind him, Chambliss is the increasingly rare breed of conservative Republican willing to work across party lines with Democrats. His bipartisan tendencies haven’t sat well with the GOP’s powerful tea party faction, which routinely puts ideological principle above political necessity.
As a member of the so-called “gang of six” bipartisan senators who tried to hammer out a deal to reduce the nation’s debt, Chambliss became a target of conservative ire last year.
His recent vote to avert the “fiscal cliff” and increase taxes for households that earn more than $450,000 only deepened the anger, prompting Amy Kremer, the national chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, to declare that Chambliss would face a conservative Republican primary challenge in the 2014 election.
In his decision to retire, Chambliss downplayed the threat of a primary challenge, saying his state and national support have only broadened “due to the stances I have taken.”
“Lest anyone think this decision is about a primary challenge, I have no doubt that had I decided to be a candidate, I would have won re-election,” he said in a statement.
“Instead, this is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress, especially on issues that are the foundation of our nation’s economic health,” Chambliss said. “The debt ceiling debacle of 2011 and the recent fiscal cliff vote showed Congress at its worst and, sadly, I don’t see the legislative gridlock and partisan posturing improving anytime soon.”
Democrats, however, see their prospects in the Peach State on the rise. Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Chambliss’ departure turned Georgia into one of the party’s “best pickup opportunities” in the 2014 elections.
“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.”
Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said the party would start looking for potential candidates to fill the seat.
Of all the states that voted Republican in the last presidential election, Berlon said, Georgia had the second highest percentage of Democratic voters, at 45.5 percent. By the gubernatorial race in 2014, he predicted, Georgia might be a 50-50 state, or majority Democratic.
“We can win statewide here as early as 2014 and certainly by 2016,” Berlon said. “Because of redistricting, we only have about 30 percent of the seats, but we have 45.5 percent of the vote.”
But Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats would have a “very uphill battle” to win Chambliss’ seat.
“Georgia is a red state that rejected President Obama and his liberal agenda by almost 10 points,” Moran said.
The Tea Party Express’ Kremer said Chambliss could see the writing on the wall.
“He had been feeling the heat and pressure from us for quite some time, and I think people are paying attention to his record,” Kremer said. “This was definitely a victory for the tea party movement.”
Kremer said two Georgia Republicans who were tea party favorites, U.S. Reps. Paul Broun and Tom Price, were rumored to be considering a primary challenge against Chambliss. Kremer said Friday that she’d support Price if he decided to run.
“He’s the former chair of the Republican Study Committee,” she said, a group of House Republicans who work to advance conservative aims. “He was at the forefront of the conservative movement fighting against Obamacare. He’s an orthopedic surgeon, and I think he’s the one who can win the seat.”
Broun fueled further speculation about his potential candidacy for Chambliss’ seat, even without declaring his intent.
“As I have been prayerfully considering my own future, I commend Sen. Chambliss for his role as a true citizen-legislator and his commitment to pass the torch to another who will fight to rein in taxes and government spending,” Broun said. “I wish him and his family all the best in his retirement and many blessings to come.”
Other Republican names making the rounds as possible candidates for the seat include U.S. Reps Jack Kingston, Tom Graves and Phil Gingrey, along with former gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel.
Chambliss was first elected to represent Georgia’s 8th District in the House of Representatives in 1994. He won a contentious Senate battle over incumbent Democrat and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland in 2002. The campaign was notable for its bitterness.
Democrats and Republicans alike criticized Chambliss for a campaign ad that linked Cleland, a multiple amputee as a result of his service in Vietnam, with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in an ad about a procedural vote on a homeland security bill. The ad attempted to portray Cleland as soft on national security.
Running for re-election in 2008, Chambliss defeated Democrat Jim Martin in a contest that ended in a runoff election.
A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Chambliss has been a strong, supportive voice for homeland security, the military and the intelligence community.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Chambliss is “one of the Senate’s strongest voices on national security and is incredibly respected both for his intellect and gentlemanly nature. His decision not to seek re-election is a great loss for the United States Senate.”