Chambliss retirement sparks scramble for U.S. Senate seat

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced Friday that he will not run for re-election, ditching a dysfunctional Washington and unleashing a tidal wave of contenders for his coveted job.

Chambliss, 69, will serve out his second full 6-year term, which ends in 2014. It will make an even 20 years in Washington — he arrived as a U.S. representative from Georgia during the 1994 House Republican wave and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002. Chambliss determined that was enough.

“I’m going to have a life after this,” Chambliss told supporters on a conference call. “Sitting on a back porch drinking whiskey with some of y’all is exciting to think about.”

Chambliss helped shape agriculture and defense policy through key committee posts and is known around Washington as a congenial back-slapper who enjoys a round of golf and a glass of wine at the end of the day. Most recently he has been at the center of bipartisan discussions on the nation’s fiscal future — a position that left him open to conservative criticism and a likely primary challenge had he chosen to run again.

The Republican from Moultrie said his decision was made primarily out of frustration with Washington. His work on a cross-party budget compromise — as a member with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and others in a group known as the “Gang of Six” — has been unable to break Washington’s fiscal stalemate. Other legislative initiatives close to Chambliss’ heart, such as the Farm Bill, have languished as well.

He has used his power to shape the nation’s agriculture policy for two decades, and as vice-chair of the Intelligence Committee he is privy to some of the country’s most sensitive information — and has power over terror-hunting capabilities. He also serves on the Armed Services and Rules committees.

But Chambliss joins a parade of longtime senators from both parties who have retired voluntarily while grumbling about gridlock and pressure from the far right and far left. Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and Connecticut Independent Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat, left at the end of 2012. West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller will be out the door with Chambliss next year.

On issues such as immigration reform and budgets — most recently Chambliss’ willingness to seek higher tax revenues as part of a major deficit deal — Chambliss has taken considerable heat from Republicans’ right wing.

“Atlanta Tea Party had been actively recruiting challengers to Sen. Chambliss for 2014 the past six months,” the group’s leader, Debbie Dooley, wrote in an email. “We praise Sen. Chambliss for his years of service to Georgia and the fact he put the best interests of Georgians above his own political ambitions when he decided not to seek re-election.”

Frenzy of contenders

Though some prominent Republicans had been positioning themselves to run against Chambliss, his announced departure prompted a flurry of activity in both parties for those considering the newly open seat.

There are several possible contenders among Georgia’s nine Republican U.S. House members. Roswell Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Price was already making calls to Republicans around the state Friday to build support.

Ellijay conservative activist Joe McCutchen said Price is “strongly leaning toward” running for the Senate. McCutchen said Price asked for his support and then asked him to talk to his friends and report back.

McCutchen said he would back a Price candidacy and that the fifth-term Republican congressman has already been doing the “advance work” of building a Senate campaign — starting well before Chambliss’ announcement.

A Price spokeswoman said: “He is speaking with a number of folks across the state of Georgia and listening to their observations and advice. He’ll continue to listen and make a decision and announcement at the appropriate time.”

Savannah U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, the longest-serving congressional Republican in the state, also might jump in.

Kingston was traveling in Israel on Friday, but a spokesman said he would be discussing the matter with friends and advisers in the coming days. “His knowledge and work on agricultural, defense and fiscal issues could serve our state well in the United States Senate, as could his record of accomplishment,” the spokesman said.

U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens had already been thinking about running against Chambliss in a primary. Chambliss’ exit adds U.S. Reps. Phil Gingrey of Marietta, Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County and Tom Graves of Ranger to the discussion. All of them left the door open Friday to running.

Westmoreland said he had gone through about 13 cellphone batteries by early afternoon with people calling him about the race. He said he’d sit down with his family and consider it, but also planned to huddle with his fellow Georgia Republicans when they return to Washington next month.

“As far as the members of Congress go, I think there will be some conversations and we’ll try to keep all nine people from running,” Westmoreland said.

Former Georgian presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain shot down the possibility of running, but other statewide Republican figures hinted that they might go for it.

Attorney General Sam Olens wrote in an email that it is “premature” to talk about Chambliss’ successor.

A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said: “There will be a time to talk about politics and the future, but today should be Senator Chambliss’ day.”

Former Secretary of State Karen Handel declined comment.

And what about former Gov. Sonny Perdue?

“The governor is really concerned about the current course of the country, and is very much analyzing today’s news,” a close associate said.

Across the aisle

The list of potential candidates on the Democratic side is smaller but includes Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta, state Sen. Jason Carter of Decatur and state Rep. Scott Holcomb of Atlanta.

Barrow, whose phone was ringing incessantly Friday, said in a statement: “At this time, I have no plans to run for anything other than re-election in the 12th District, but I am certainly gratified that people have been suggesting I run for the Senate.”

More broadly, Chambliss’ retirement has Democrats hoping they could break Republicans’ statewide winning streak in 2014.

Tharon Johnson, the Atlanta Democratic consultant who led President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in the South — including a surprise victory in Florida — said the road is difficult but not impossible. He said it starts with Democrats rallying behind one candidate and avoiding a contentious, money-sapping primary. It also means building a better campaign infrastructure, with national help.

“I know people say sometimes we’re pink or we’re purple, but Georgia is a red state,” Johnson said. “So we have to as Democrats swallow that pill. But it doesn’t mean it’s a state that’s not progressive.”

Obama got 45 percent of the Georgia vote in November, as the state was largely ignored by both national campaigns. It’s on the radar now. Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement that “Georgia will now offer Democrats one of our best pickup opportunities of the cycle.”

But Chambliss insisted that the decision was not intended to avoid a primary challenge. His Georgia Republican colleague and friend of a half-century U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson added, “You can put it in your pipe and smoke it that Saxby Chambliss would have been re-elected had he run.”

Westmoreland pointed out that Chambliss — who, according to his financial disclosures, is far from being a millionaire like most of his Senate colleagues — can seek out a lucrative post-Senate career.

“After you’ve been in public service so long, I think that you have to step back and think about your family, your grandkids, your kids, how much time you’ve spent away from them,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity to go out in the private sector and make some money and look forward to retirement.”

Among the most prominent motivators for Friday’s announcement for Chambliss was a desire to leave on his own terms.

“Well, there comes a time, everybody has to decide,” Chambliss told Channel 2 Action News in a brief interview at his Cobb County office Friday. “I’m glad I can go out when I’m on top.”

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.