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Sen. Saxby Chambliss is the opposite of a cable TV firebrand. With his thin white hair and restrained drawl, he has the look of a genteel Southern senator direct from central casting.
But the Georgia Republican’s willingness to reach across the aisle and his comfort with the idea of compromise give him a different look to many tea party activists back home: vulnerability.
Chambliss begins the 2014 cycle as arguably the senator most exposed to a primary challenge. Although he is strategically much better positioned than Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar was — the movement’s biggest victory from the 2010 elections — Chambliss’ problems with his party’s base are no less palpable.
“Sen. Chambliss is not very popular among a lot of the conservative grass roots,” said Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots and the co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party.
Conservatives “don’t feel he’s as conservative as the base is,” said Virginia Galloway, the state director for Americans for Prosperity Georgia. “Sometimes when he sees himself being a statesman, conservatives see him as being a sellout.”
The crux of the base’s concern is Chambliss’ history of reaching across the aisle to work on solutions to issues such as immigration and federal debt.
Another thing that rankled some of the base: his involvement in the bipartisan effort to come up with a solution to the debt ceiling crisis as part of the “gang of six.”
Chambliss will almost certainly have a primary challenger from the right. But over the next months, the decisive factor in determining his true vulnerability is whether a GOP congress member will run or whether Chambliss will face off with a less-formidable challenger.
There’s talk in Republican circles in Georgia that Rep. Tom Price may mount a Senate bid.
Price, an exceedingly ambitious member and a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, lost an election for GOP conference chairman last week. That’s increased the sense among Peach State insiders that Price might make a move against the senior senator. He had a hefty $1.5 million in his campaign account in mid-October, enough to mount a viable statewide bid. Price and his aides declined to comment for this story.
Chip Lake, a Georgia Republican consultant who had Price as a client, said he suspected Price would not ultimately run and instead choose to pursue his ambition in the House.
“Tom Price is smart, strategic and very calculating,” Lake said in an email. “I think he will take his time to evaluate his next step and where he thinks he can be most effective.”