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Georgia GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ decision to retire at the end of the 113th Congress has already set off furious speculation about how many congressmen will throw their hats into the ring to replace him in the Senate.
“This has the potential to really blow things up,” Georgia Republican consultant Joel McElhannon said. “This could be a free-for-all.”
“You’re going to have a lot of candidates in that primary,” one Georgia GOP operative explained. “You’re going to have some suburban candidates, some candidates outside of Atlanta, some right-wing conservatives, some more mainstream conservatives. It’s a target-rich environment and any time you have an environment like that, it seems to be very akin to the Wild, Wild West.”
Georgia’s GOP delegation to the House of Representatives is probably the top-tier of Republican candidates. Rep. Tom Price, an ambitious member who had more than $1.6 million in cash on hand in his last filing with the Federal Election Commission, would be a front-runner along with powerful and popular five-term Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. Both are considering a run but have yet to make decisions on a bid.
Other names mentioned by Georgia GOP insiders as potential candidates: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens.
In a crowded primary field, geography will be a big part of a candidate’s destiny.
“Eighty percent of the Georgia primary electorate lives north of I-20,” said a Republican intimately familiar with Georgia GOP politics, referring to the highway that runs east to west through the state, bisecting metro Atlanta. “And that’s going to give an inherent advantage to a Phil Gingrey or a Tom Price.”
Both members’ districts sit north of Atlanta.
The sudden surge of ambitious Republicans considering a run — Chambliss’ decision came as somewhat of a surprise — left some influential conservatives in the state fretting.
Virginia Galloway, the state director for Americans for Prosperity Georgia, is deeply plugged in to the conservative grass roots in the state. She said she was uneasy about the potential “fruitbasket turnover,” where everyone jumps in the race.
“I’m concerned — and I think other conservatives are concerned — that we could lose a large portion of our congressional delegation if everybody jumps in to go after the Senate seat,” she said in an interview.
And she and other insiders hoped that, in a crowded rough-and-tumble primary, a candidate who could win statewide would emerge as the GOP standard-bearer.
“Conservative is very important but they have to be electable across the state of Georgia,” Galloway said. “We’ve got to have someone who can speak to the entire state.”
The Peach State only voted 46 percent for Barack Obama in 2012, so any shot Democrats have here would be premised on a weak Republican nominee.
In a statement, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran of Kansas said Chambliss’ retirement doesn’t change “the reality that the Democrats have a very uphill battle to try wresting this seat from Republican hands.”
Still, local and national Democrats are already seriously eyeing the race and making calls.
“Georgia will now offer Democrats one of our best pickup opportunities of the cycle,” Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
“This development gives us the time we need to field an exceptional candidate for the race,” Democratic Party of Georgia Chairman Mike Berlon said in a statement.
The two early top recruits for national Democrats would be Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a business-friendly city executive with a national profile, and conservative Blue Dog Rep. John Barrow.
Reed was mum on a bid Friday, saying only it was a day to “acknowledge [Chambliss’] many contributions to our state and nation rather than to focus on politics.”
Barrow left open the door to a run but said in a statement: “At this time, I have no plans to run for anything else than re-election in the 12th district.”