Chambliss brushes aside concerns about primary challenge from right

Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s (R-Ga.) team is brushing aside any concerns about a primary challenge from the right despite such a threat from popular conservative blogger Erick Erickson.

“It doesn’t bother us. I’ve never objected to primaries. I actually like them; in all my life I have,” Chambliss’s top political strategist, Tom Perdue, told The Hill. “The issues get discussed better in primaries — that’s what I like. It involves more people getting into the process and it gets people excited.”

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The second-term senator has been the target of some conservatives since becoming the latest Republican to back away from the anti-tax pledge they signed with conservative activist Grover Norquist. Last week, Chambliss told local Georgia television station 13WMAZ that addressing the nation’s looming “fiscal cliff” took precedence over honoring the pledge.

“I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” he said. “If we do it his way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that.”

The comment provoked Erickson, an influential conservative commentator and Georgia native, to say he would consider a primary challenge to Chambliss in 2014.

Erickson, who edits the conservative Red State blog and is a political commentator on CNN, has been a longtime critic of the senator and says conservatives only supported his reelection in 2008 because his narrow victory kept the Democrats from a obtaining a filibuster-proof Senate majority.

“Back in December of 2008, I wrote that Chambliss found himself in a runoff because he sided with every bad compromise from immigration to energy to the farm bill to the bailouts,” Erickson told CNN on Tuesday. “Conservatives supported him because we knew he was what stood between America and 60 Democrats in the Senate. But he never learned his lesson and continues to support all the compromises that have gotten us into this mess in the first place. Whether it is me or someone else, conservatives should make beating Saxby Chambliss their chief cause in primary season 2014.”

Other conservative groups haven’t targeted Chambliss — yet.

The Club for Growth told The Hill it is “not focused on Georgia’s Senate race at this time.” 

Erickson, however, isn’t the only Republican thought to be eyeing Chambliss’s seat. 

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) recently lost his bid to rise in House Republican leadership, and Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) is the kind of fire-breathing conservative who could rally Tea Party conservatives in a primary against an establishment Republican. Karen Handel, who resigned earlier this year as vice president of public policy at the Susan B. Komen Foundation, has also expressed interest.

“I think Chambliss can be vulnerable to a primary challenger, but it’s got to be the right candidate,” Cook Political Report editor Jennifer Duffy told The Hill. But, she added, a lot will depend on the political climate next year, and in particular whether Republicans are still willing to risk nominating long-shot candidates for the sake of party purity — a strategy that has backfired in the last two election cycles.

Duffy doesn’t take Erickson’s potential candidacy too seriously, calling it “chest-thumping” likely made in a “fit of pique.” She said Erickson probably doesn’t have the name recognition within the state that he thinks he has and would have to drop his television gig and generally excel at a lot of the political operations outsiders tend to underestimate.

“His visibility would help him raise money, but he’d have the same challenge any other candidate has,” she said. “He’ll have to build some name identification, and nobody knows what kind of a primary candidate or general election candidate he’d turn out to be. I have to wonder whether he realizes that. I see this a lot — candidates like him think they’re well-known, that they have a built-in base, and then they get out there and realize it’s a lot harder than it looks.”

Regardless of what awaits Chambliss in his reelection efforts, Perdue said the senator understands that he’s under scrutiny, and likened his performance in the fiscal-cliff negotiations to a primary in and of itself. 

Still, Perdue believes Chambliss’s appeals for reform will help him in his reelection bid. He also argues that Chambliss hasn’t strayed from party principles, saying he has never in his nearly 20-year congressional career voted for a tax increase, and doesn’t believe a compromise with Democrats on tax reform would be doing so now. 

Chambliss supports tax reform that would increase federal revenue while keeping rates the same. Perdue argues that this isn’t a violation of the Norquist pledge, and that a number of other Republicans are coming around to the same view. Norquist and Chambliss “have been friends a long time” and have talked recently, Perdue says.

“Some people don’t think Republicans should work with Democrats,” he noted. “But Saxby’s not going to stop trying to bring everyone to the table and solve this problem. You have the future of America staring you in the face right now, so that’s where Saxby’s head is. He’s not into the politics.”