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Monday, December 3, 2012 - 12:20pm

Chambliss Challenge Awkward For GOP

The emergence of potential candidates contemplating a 2014 Republican primary challenge against Georgia U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss could put him—and his party—in an awkward situation.

The one-term incumbent is a member of the Senate's "gang of eight" that is trying to broker a bi-partisan agreement to avoid automatic federal spending cuts due to take effect New Year's Day.

Chambliss's openness to raising tax rates as part of a boarder strategy to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff" has put him at odds with staunch fiscal conservatives.

The midterm primary is likely to bring out voters who would be interested in a hard-right challenger, said Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy.

"We’ve seen in 2010, 2012 that these Republican primaries do tend to turn out those hardcore Republican voters," Duffy said.

Still, any primary challenge against Chambliss would likely be viewed against the backdrop of recent history, Duffy said.

In the 2012 Indiana senatorial primary, moderate GOP senator Richard Lugar was ousted by Tea Party-backed challenger Richard Murdock, who went on to lose the general election in November after he got on statewide TV and said "I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

National Democrats would likely invest a lot of funding in their 2014 Georgia senatorial nominee if a more extreme Republican candidate made it to the general election, Duffy said, noting that President Obama’s 8-point loss in Georgia last month was narrow enough that the state may soon be more competitive.

Duffy said national Republicans will do everything they can to keep what happened in Indiana from happening in Georgia.

"The party establishment would like to start working with these groups, like the Club for Growth, like FreedomWorks, to eliminate primaries, particularly against incumbents, and then to find sort of mutually acceptable candidates who can win statewide races," Duffy said.

But meddling in Georgia's state party affairs could backfire, said Gwinnett County-based GOP pollster Mark Roundtree.

"The Republican National Senatorial Committee was openly supportive of Senator Lugar, and in fact, in many ways caused exactly the counter-reaction that occurred," Roundtree said. "In many ways, Murdock was able to win the primary because national organization and the national committee were standing behind Lugar."

Roundtree said he would urge Senator Chambliss to work behind the scenes to limit national GOP involvement in this matter, and ask the Republican National Senatorial Committee to at least lay off the heavy-handed, personal attacks against any primary challenger who may come to the fore.

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel has not denied leaks from her inner circle that she is considering a run against Chambliss. Other names that have been discussed include Georgia congressmen Tom Price and Paul Broun, but neither has tipped their hand publicly, and Roundtree said he’s not surprised.

"They have something to lose if they run, they’re going to lose their seat," Roundtree said. "But somebody like a Karen Handel or a Tea Party candidate or a Herman Cain, they don’t have anything to lose because they're not elected to anything right now."

Roundtree said current office holders will probably wait to see how the 2014 Governor’s race shapes up and whether there will be any turnout-driving ballot measures before they announce a run for Senate.

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