Conservative Rep. Paul Broun once called evolution, embryology and the big-bang theory “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”
For Republicans yearning for Senate candidates who can appeal to moderate voters and win general elections, that’s exactly where Broun has come from.
On Wednesday, the Georgian became the first member of the GOP to launch a bid to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss in 2014. His announcement kicks off what could be the longest, bloodiest, most ideological Senate primary this cycle — just as the party grapples with how to nominate candidates with broader electoral appeal.
A group of influential Republicans, including strategist Karl Rove and American Crossroads President Steven Law, announced over the weekend a new third-party group to support conservative GOP candidates who can win general elections. They were partly inspired by last cycle’s Senate losses in Indiana and Missouri, where the conservative primary victors lost races in traditionally GOP states.
Multiple Republican strategists familiar with the Senate landscape privately described Broun as being in the mold of those two 2012 Senate nominees. He recently said “the only Constitution that Barack Obama upholds is the Soviet constitution.”
“If he is our nominee, this is Indiana redux and that’s a big problem,” a national GOP operative familiar with Senate races said, referring to 2012 Indiana Senate nominee Richard E. Mourdock. “The chances of [Broun] winning statewide are not good.”
The good news for Republicans: Broun could be joined by two to four fellow House members. Republican Reps. Phil Gingrey, Tom Graves, Jack Kingston and Tom Price are mulling bids.
Georgia Republicans see no immediate leader of the pack. But with the potential for multiple current and former statewide officials and self-funding candidates to also jump in the race, the Peach State GOP could face a long and muddy slog to the July 2014 primary.
“There is no front-runner,” said Georgia GOP consultant Tom Perdue, who has advised Chambliss since 1993.
Gingrey and Kingston appear closest to getting in the race. At first, Republicans viewed Price as almost certain to jump in, but he has dramatically scaled back the speed with which he is approaching a run, insiders said.
“Price doesn’t feel like he’s in a huge rush. He’s just fundraising and chugging along,” said Joel McElhannon, a Georgia GOP consultant. “But that has led to a lot of rampant speculation down here that he won’t run.”
In a statement, Price spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael said the representative was “humbled” by the support he has received for a Senate run. “At the same time, he takes seriously the calling of public service and plans to fulfill the duties entrusted to him as Vice Chairman of the Budget Committee,” she said.
Price, the former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, could perhaps best hew the line between the establishment and conservative wings of the party. Insiders see him as someone who could get the job done in a rough-and-tumble primary.
“He’s hardworking, he’s smart, he’s coldblooded — he’ll do what it takes,” one unaligned Georgia GOP operative said. “The problem with him being reptilian is that he’s reptilian.”
Republicans view other members as better at the glad-handing, retail aspect of politics. One strength Kingston might bring to the race is his familiarity with the agricultural and military industries — big in the state — based on his tenure as a member of relevant committees.
“I’m doing due diligence, but I’m not ready to announce,” Kingston said Wednesday in a short phone interview.
Gingrey continues to seriously consider a run and is taking all the necessary steps to test the waters, one of his top aides said. Age may be a factor for the 70-year-old, as will his recent comment that former Rep. Todd Akin was “partly right” in his infamous remarks about “legitimate rape.” But he has the most money, and that matters.
A Graves aide said he is still considering a run, but the aide didn’t expect him to make a decision either way “anytime soon.”
The consensus among a number of Georgia Republican insiders, however, is that Graves, who was first elected in June 2010, will not mount a bid, instead keeping his powder dry for higher office in the future.
The vast majority of the GOP primary electorate lives north of Interstate 20, the highway that runs east to west through the state, bisecting metro Atlanta. That would give an early leg up to Gingrey and Price, whose districts are, respectively, northwest and north of Atlanta.
Kingston, who represents a swath of coastal and southern Georgia, brushed off the idea that geography would put him at a disadvantage.
“I have a pretty good stronghold in south Georgia, but I’m also an Athens boy,” he said, referring to the college town northeast of Atlanta, where he went to high school.
Broun’s district stretches east of Atlanta. He begins his race with some support from the most socially and fiscally conservative wing of the party. But he lacks one of the most important assets a candidate can have: a big war chest.
At the end of 2012, Gingrey had $1.9 million in cash on hand, Kingston had $988,000 and Price had $1.6 million. Broun had only $156,000.
And then there are the non-congressmen who might run.
“I’d be shocked — shocked — if there weren’t a tier-one non-congressional candidate who runs against Washington and who gets to the runoff,” a Republican strategist in the state said.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and Kelly L. Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta WNBA team and an executive a financial firm, are all considered potential top contenders.
Finally, whether and who powerful and well-monied outside groups, such as the anti-tax Club for Growth, support could be a determining factor in the Senate race.
At the end of 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, Broun, Graves and Price all had lifetime scores of 95 percent or more with the Club for Growth.
Gingrey had 85 percent and Kingston had 82 percent.
Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, said, “We’re watching the race.”
As are a lot of people.
The field remains extremely fluid, and many more candidates could jump in.
Along with federal and current and former statewide officials, “you’ve got maybe a dozen lesser-known names who are toying with it,” said Perdue, the GOP consultant. “Every time the tide comes in, it seems to wash something else up.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Broun's district. It is east of Atlanta.