Saxby Chambliss: The Invisible Man in a GOP Senate Race

Published Jul 31, 2013. By Jim Galloway. In The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

We now have seven candidates on the Republican side of next year’s race for U.S. Senate.

But one figure is already conspicuously absent from the discussion: Saxby Chambliss, the GOP incumbent. Not his person, of course. He’s retiring.

Missing are the two-term senator’s ideas and positions within a GOP field that continues to press rightward on fiscal issues, and to tiptoe into libertarian territory on national security matters.

Not one Republican has seconded Chambliss’s two-year pursuit of a bipartisan deal to resolve a $16 trillion federal debt – one that includes both budget cuts and revenue increases.

Several have rebelled against Chambliss’ defense of current federal surveillance efforts on American soil. Last week, U.S. Reps. Paul Broun of Athens and Jack Kingston of Savannah voted to curtail the National Security Agency’s secret collection of hundreds of millions of Americans’ phone records.

Karen Handel, the former secretary of state, also endorsed a curb on NSA activities. U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta opposed the restrictions.

Others are hedging, but Handel and Broun have endorsed the new Republican effort in Washington to defund Obamacare – or shut down the federal government. Chambliss panned the tactic as impracticable in an MSNBC interview on Wednesday, noting that he was in Congress when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried the same thing in 1994.

“We’ve been down that road,” Chambliss said. “We got our butts kicked over shutting down the government.”

Currently, lines of separation between Chambliss and the Republicans who would replace him have been polite and respectful. But there are inklings that this may not always be so.

One camp this week passed out word that Chambliss had made a money call for Kingston, resulting in a hefty donation from WellPoint PAC, a political action committee representing the health insurance industry. As if that were a bad thing.

Chris Crawford, a spokesman for Kingston, said he couldn’t address Chambliss’ “personal actions.”

“As for the contribution, we appreciate WellPoint’s generosity and continued support for our campaign,” Crawford said. Like other candidates, Kingston has had conversations about the contest with Chambliss, he said.

“Jack can have an intellectual disagreement with a friend on some of the issues we face. Jack is the kind of person that seeks the counsel of many,” Crawford said.

The source of Republican wariness over Chambliss is obvious, and measureable. The GOP has lost two races for the White House in a row, but what to do about it remains up for grabs.

A national poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 54 percent of Republicans and GOP sympathizers think the party needs to become more conservative.

Overall, 35 percent of Republicans think their party has compromised too much with Democrats. But among tea party adherents, that number shoots up to 53 percent.

And so we have a strange situation developing: The candidate most effusive in public praise for Chambliss has also named Max Cleland, whom Chambliss defeated in 2002, as one of her honorary campaign chairs.

That would be Democrat Michelle Nunn, who has vowed to make the federal debt and fiscal responsibility a centerpiece of her campaign – and, perhaps, sweep up voters put off by a Republican field enamored with confrontation.

(David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and the most recent Republican to join the race, said he, too, intends to focus on the federal debt – as a national security issue. But Perdue has ruled out all revenue increases.)

There is a link among Chambliss, Nunn and the debt debate that you should probably take note of.

Phil Smith has been at nearly every public meeting in Georgia where Chambliss has taken heat for his dealings with Democrats, trying to find that Grand Bargain. He’s had Chambliss’ back for the better part of two years.

Smith is the southern regional director for the Concord Coalition, a non-partisan, grassroots organization whose purpose is bringing the federal debt under control. The group is co-chaired by Sam Nunn, the former Georgia senator and father of Michelle Nunn.

The Concord Coalition will make no endorsement in next year’s race. Smith said he was encouraged by Michelle Nunn’s embrace of her father’s views on the matter, but that he also understood why Republicans have fled discussion of a bipartisan solution.

“That’s a shame, because there are a lot of issues that the GOP could bring up that would cast them in a more responsible light,” Smith said.

But the Concord Coalition leader also noted that Chambliss wasn’t always a hero to the debt-busting crowd. “In the 1990s, when he was in the House, I don’t think he was quite as good on our issues. He had a stint as vice chair of the House budget committee, and I never saw any stand-out votes,” Smith said.

“When Saxby was running against Max Cleland, he didn’t look a lot like the Saxby we have today. He frankly looked more like these [Republicans] you and I are talking about,” Smith said. “Maybe some of these candidates that are running will grow into that.”

It is a thought that gives heart to Smith and his cause. And heartburn to certain Republicans in Georgia.