Republican U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia cited frustration with “legislative gridlock” in announcing he won’t seek a third term next year, giving Democrats their first opportunity to win an open Senate seat in 2014.
Chambliss, 69, was a member of the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators who offered a $3.7 trillion deficit-cutting plan in 2011. It included proposed revenue increases opposed by many Republicans.
Chambliss’s role in trying to broker a compromise during negotiations over raising the government’s debt ceiling drew criticism from some in his party. Two U.S. House members from Georgia, Tom Price and Paul Broun, had considered challenging Chambliss in a primary, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
In a statement on his website, the senator said his decision wasn’t motivated by a desire to avoid a Republican primary challenge.
“Instead, this is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress, especially on issues that are the foundation of our nation’s economic health,” Chambliss said.
He said the 2011 fight over raising the debt limit and this month’s budget measure “showed Congress at its worst and, sadly, I don’t see the legislative gridlock and partisan posturing improving anytime soon.”
Chambliss voted for the Jan. 1 legislation that raised taxes on high-earning individuals and families and postponed automatic spending cuts.
The senator’s decision about the next election was likely motivated by a desire to avoid a tough fight to win the Republican nomination, said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.
“Whether anybody beat him or not, there would have been some challenger,” Black said in a telephone interview. “He would have encountered a lot of dissatisfied Republicans so it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience,” he said.
Chambliss’s announcement was hailed by the Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella group based in Washington.
“Senator Chambliss led us down the wrong road by compromising our values on tax hikes and supporting” the financial bailout in 2008, Jenny Beth Martin, the group’s national coordinator, said in a statement. “The grassroots revolted against him and we look forward to new leadership,” she said.
Democrats will make the Georgia Senate race “a top priority,” said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Democrats control the Senate 55-45.
“Georgia will now offer Democrats one of our best pickup opportunities” in 2014, Cecil said in a statement. “There are already several reports of the potential for a divisive primary that will push Republicans to the extreme right.”
“Who’s their candidate?” Black said.
A Democratic victory in the 2014 Senate race is unlikely because “Democrats have a hard time getting past 45 or 46 percent of the vote” statewide, Black said in a telephone interview.
Democratic Representative John Barrow, who must worry about defending his House seat, would “probably be the strongest candidate the Democrats could put up” is “totally untested in a statewide race,” Black said.
Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Republicans’ campaign group, said in a statement that even with Chambliss’s retirement, “Democrats have a very uphill battle to try wresting this seat from Republican hands.” Georgia voters chose Republican Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama by 53 percent to 45 percent in the Nov. 6 election.
Moran said the race will give Georgia voters a choice between “a Republican candidate who believes in reining in wasteful Washington spending, growing jobs and protecting” gun-ownership rights “versus a liberal Democrat who will be a loyal rubber-stamp” for Obama.
The race for the Republican nomination is “wide open” now that Chambliss has decided to leave the Senate in two years, Black said. An orthopedic surgeon and a “respected voice in the House,” Price “could raise all sorts of money if he decides to do it,” Black said. “I would be surprised if he weren’t a candidate,” he said.
In November, Price, 59, lost a close race to lead the House Republican Conference to Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
Ellen Carmichael, a Price spokeswoman, said the five-term congressman is considering a possible Senate candidacy. The congressman “is speaking with a number of folks across the state” and will “make a decision and announcement at the appropriate time,” she said in an e-mail.
Another possible Republican candidate is Karen Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state, Black said.
After serving four U.S. House terms, Chambliss won election to the Senate in 2002 by defeating Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran who lost both legs and his right arm in combat.
‘Courage to Lead’
Chambliss accused Cleland in a campaign ad of hampering the fight against terrorism by opposing homeland-security legislation proposed by President George W. Bush. A year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the TV spot questioned Cleland’s “courage to lead” the fight against terrorism and “extremist dictators.”
The ad drew criticism from veterans’ groups and an organization representing families of Sept. 11 victims.
Chambliss had a tough re-election race in 2008 in which neither he nor his Democratic opponent, former state Representative Jim Martin, got a majority vote on election day. Chambliss defeated Martin in a runoff a month later.
Chambliss is the second senator to decide not to seek re-election next year. West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, 75, announced Jan. 11 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term, giving Republicans an opportunity to win a Senate seat that Democrats have held since the 1950s.