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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.”
Georgia GOP political insiders floated that another Republican member might take a run at Chambliss.
“It’s not just Tom Price — there’s a lot of palace intrigue down here,” said a top Republican strategist in Atlanta.
An aide to Rep. Paul Broun said he was focused on his current job but left the door wide open to a bid. “Dr. Broun is not running for Senate at this time,” spokeswoman Meredith Griffanti said in a statement.
Reached by phone Monday, Georgia Rep. Tom Graves declined to comment for this story.
Georgia Reps. Phil Gingrey, Lynn Westmoreland and Jack Kingston aren’t seen as likely Senate contenders, and aides to the GOP congressmen confirmed their bosses had no intention of challenging Chambliss.
Still, the base’s dissatisfaction with Chambliss is driving talk of a challenge, and insiders see an in for Price or a similar member.
“Our base is very, very conservative,” a Georgia Republican operative said. “The fact that our base is shaky on Saxby gives Tom an opening.”
Beyond Chambliss’ openness to compromise, there are also stylistic concerns. He’s mild-mannered, and the base often wants a firebrand, activists said.
Tom Perdue, the senator’s chief political strategist, admitted Chambliss had issues with some of the base but indicated that was the price of doing business in a chamber with two parties.
“There are tea party people who do not like Saxby. And their position is you really should never work with a Democrat,” he said. “I don’t know how you get anything done in Congress if you don’t work with members of the opposing party.”
Perdue said the senator, who had $1.4 million in the bank at the end of September, was definitely running for re-election. And Perdue didn’t begrudge members floating their names out there but expected none to jump in the race.
“Those who are talking about running against him today, they have been friends over the years, and their interest is pretty much the same as Saxby’s, but a couple of them tend to lean to the side of the party that talks tough and can’t get things done,” he said.
Chambliss, for his part, has also been extending an open hand to the tea party movement.
“He is trying to reach out to different tea party activists, to different conservatives and tried to mend those fences,” Dooley said. “But whether or not it’s too little, too late is anybody’s guess.”