Tight-knit Georgia Republican delegation starts to fray over Senate race

The nine Republicans in Georgia’s House delegation are, by most accounts, a close-knit group.

They sit together in a cluster in the House chamber during votes and meet as a group on a weekly basis. Ideologically, they can best be described as conservative, more conservative and most conservative.

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And now, at least four of those Peach State buddies appear to share a common ambition: They are each eyeing an open Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R).

Chambliss’s announcement in January that he would not seek reelection set off a political free-for-all among Georgia Republicans. And it has turned a handful of longtime friends into rivals.

Rep. Paul Broun, the first to announce his candidacy, has jumped in most aggressively, seeking to appeal to the state’s most ardent conservative activists by opposing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s House Republican budget as too timid.

Reps. Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston have said they are “seriously considering” the race, and both are expected to officially declare their candidacies in the coming weeks.

Rep. Tom Price, a top fundraiser who served in the House GOP leadership in 2011-2012, is also looking at the race but is putting off a decision until later in the spring.

“Everybody understands the world of politics,” Price said in an interview.

While the delegation has not met specifically to discuss the Senate race, the candidates said they have all spoken individually to each other. They pledged to run “a clean and above-board race,” in the words of Kingston.

A fifth veteran Georgia Republican, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, has already taken a look and passed on the Senate race. The four junior GOP members of the delegation — Reps. Austin Scott, Rob Woodall, Tom Graves and Douglas Collins — are all sitting it out.

Price, Gingrey and Broun are all medical doctors who serve together in the Republican Doctors Caucus and have been among the most vocal critics of President Obama’s 2010 healthcare overhaul. Kingston, the senior Republican in the delegation, is a cardinal on the Appropriations Committee and earlier in his career sat on the party leadership team.

“We’ve all been battling on the same team for a long period,” Price said. “Everybody understands the last thing we need is for everybody to start beating each other up.”

But in a party primary that will last more than a year, the debate is bound to get feisty.

Broun said he has told his colleagues he would run “a high, high road campaign.”

“I’ve told them all, if they want to jump in the pond, the water’s fine,” he said. “We’ll have a nice, friendly discussion about policy.”

But in the same interview, he seemed to suggest his potential Republican opponents backed big government and did not believe in the Constitution as he did.

“I believe in the original intent of the Constitution. There’s no other candidate that’s going to get into this race that does,” Broun said. “I believe in the Constitution as the Founding Fathers meant it. They believe in a Constitution where government finds all the solutions for all the problems. So there are big differences between me and all the other candidates that can get in this race.”

Asked if he was arguing that Gingrey, Price and Kingston favored government solutions, Broun backed off. “No, I’m not saying that,” he replied. He said he had been a leader in the fiscal fight and was someone who “had the will to say no to out-of-control spending.”

“I’ve got that record. They don’t,” Broun said.

Republicans are also expecting candidates from outside Congress to jump into the race. The most formidable could be Karen Handel, the runner-up in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010. Handel could also seek to take the House seat of Price, who supported her after initially backing the eventual winner, Nathan Deal.

On the Democratic side, Blue Dog Rep. John Barrow is seen as one of the few potential candidates who could make the race competitive after Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed passed on the campaign. Barrow told supporters this week he is giving serious consideration to the race.

Back in the House, Broun caused headaches for the Republican leadership and members of the delegation with his blistering critique of the Ryan budget. He appears to be leading a race to the right among lawmakers who are already some of the most conservative in the House.

“This budget fails to seriously address our nation’s most pressing problem, and that’s the out-of-control spending going on in Washington,” he said in a statement.

Conservatives had trumpeted the fact that Ryan’s plan balanced the budget in 10 years. Broun had supported Ryan’s blueprint in 2011, which took nearly three decades to eliminate the deficit. He missed the vote last year, saying he intended to vote no but had been “tied up in a meeting” and walked into the House chamber just as the vote was gaveled closed.

“The Senate race brings out a lot of changes,” noted Woodall when asked about Broun’s critique.

The second-term congressman authored the Republican Study Committee’s conservative alternative to Ryan’s budget, but he and other leaders in the group urged members to support both proposals on the floor.

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Broun said he supported the Ryan budget two years ago because “it was the first time anybody [had] the fortitude to put forward a plan that would start dealing” with entitlement spending. But he opposed this year’s version because it only slowed the growth of spending rather than cut it outright.

“I’ve not changed anything,” he said. “I would be voting the same way today if we had Saxby Chambliss running for reelection.”

Gingrey also opposed the Ryan budget, while Price and Kingston supported it along with the more conservative RSC proposal.

The new dynamic is such that one Georgia Republican said there were now two voting blocs in the delegation – those Republicans running for the Senate and those not running.

The non-candidates in the delegation have been caught in the middle, left to watch and hope that the campaign does not descend completely into acrimony by 2014.

None of them are expected to pick sides among their friends, at least not anytime soon.

“There’s been no tension. There honestly hasn’t been,” insisted Rep. Austin Scott (Ga.). “Every parent who takes their kid to the pine-car derby wants their kid to win, but it’s not like they’re rooting against the other one.”

“I don’t see anything other than friends trying out for the same position, if you will,” Scott added.

— Updated at 10:36 a.m.

Both Reps. Tom Price and Jack Kingston have previously served on the House GOP leadership team. This information was misstated in an earlier version of this article.