Broun faces political maneuvering with 12 months until likely primary

Paul Broun worked his way to Washington on an outsider’s message, while nearly the entire Republican establishment did just about everything it could to clear the way for his opponent.

Now the Republican will face the tug of the GOP hierarchy that he so effectively spurned. And his survival in next July’s primary might depend on his ability to break bread with it over the next 12 months.

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Broun is widely expected to draw a primary challenge next summer, possibly from one of the state legislators that bowed out for his opponent, former state Sen. Jim Whitehead (R).

Shortly after it became apparent that Broun would be the newest member of the Georgia congressional delegation last week, he spoke with members of that delegation to plan his entrance and get to know them.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), contacted Broun on Friday to congratulate him and welcome him to the House. The state party chairman has also reached out.
Broun has signaled a willingness to work with his new colleagues and the leaders of the state GOP.

“I look forward to working constructively with our state’s congressional delegation and our senators in Washington,” Broun said in asserting victory last week. “I also anticipate a positive relationship with Gov. [Sonny] Perdue, Lt. Gov. [Casey] Cagle, [state House] Speaker [Glenn] Richardson, our state legislators and local leaders.”

The Georgia secretary of state certified Broun’s 394-vote win on Monday. The margin is less than 1 percent and Whitehead will probably ask for a recount, which is allowed by state law.

Broun, who bills himself as the only physician in Georgia with a practice built around house calls, represents nothing if not a wild card for the Republican Party. Increasingly, he’s drawing comparisons to another doctor in the House: Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the colorful former libertarian now mixing it up in the GOP presidential field.

Georgia operatives and observers don’t know what to expect from the erstwhile political also-ran. After several failed long-shot bids, including for U.S. Senate in 1996, Broun narrowly worked his way into a runoff with Whitehead and then shocked nearly everyone by pulling off a tight victory last Tuesday.

Democrats have since argued that the win was repudiation of the GOP leftover from the 2006 election. Even some Republicans have acknowledged slices of intra-party discontent in Georgia — perhaps the one state where Republicans actually made gains in 2006. Georgia Republicans retained their majorities in the state legislature without losing a seat and won several key statewide races, despite falling just short in two congressional takeover tries against Reps. Jim Marshall (D) and John Barrow (D).

 Broun’s campaign cited its outreach to Democrats and black voters late in the campaign. Hailing from the Athens area, Broun was forced to rely on a much more heavily Democratic constituency than was Augusta-based Whitehead.

It was sufficient with a 14 percent turnout in an all-Republican runoff. But in the general election, turnout will be much higher, meaning small subsets of motivated voters will have less of an impact. And in the primary, Democrats will have their own candidates.

One Whitehead operative said Broun did a great job of creating a coalition with Athens-area Democrats, but that it is incumbent upon him to focus on his own party going forward.

“He is going to have a primary challenge,” the operative said. “And when he does, those people are going to be able to effectively draw a contrast with him if he doesn’t come around and embrace the Republicans. But he may. He’s proven himself to be a savvy guy.”

Some of the potential primary challengers mentioned include state Rep. Barry Fleming and former Athens Mayor Doc Eldridge.

Fleming didn’t rule it out.

“I am having a lot of people contact me and ask me to consider that,” Fleming said. “I’m flattered that I’m being mentioned.”

Former state Sen. Brian Kemp told The Hill on Monday that he is not interested.

Broun is the son of a famous longtime Democratic Athens state legislator of the same name. He is no less conservative
than Whitehead and should fit right in with the state’s congressional delegation in that regard.

On the trail, Broun trumpeted a constitutionalist message that included an enforcement-first illegal immigration policy, victory in Iraq and abolishment of the IRS.

“Here’s a Republican winning a runoff on the returns of a county where he’s going to be a big loser in the general election in 2008,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “I don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s running as a kind of maverick conservative, but he’s very conservative.”

Broun took 21 percent in last month’s special election, edging Athens Democrat James Marlow by fewer than 200 votes to make the runoff with Whitehead, who took 45 percent.

Broun won the runoff with about a quarter of the vote in the Augusta area and about 90 percent in Athens.

He self-funded more than $200,000 of his campaign, raising just more than $150,000 by the end of June.

Whitehead was the only elected lawmaker in the special election and had the support of numerous party leaders. He also raised several times as much money as Broun.