On Tuesday, a new survey published by Public Policy Polling showed Chambliss losing conservative support, but poised to eke out a primary victory, even if Price, or someone with his stature, runs. “Only 38 percent of Republican primary voters say they want Chambliss to be their nominee, compared to 43 percent who would prefer someone else,” wrote Tom Jensen of PPP in a memo. “But Chambliss stops most of the people who’ve shown the most interest in taking him on,” leading potential candidates by double digits. On background, Chambliss foes shrug off the poll numbers, and argue that a challenger, especially from the wealthy Atlanta area, would quickly generate enthusiasm.
Since Georgia’s Republican nominees are elected in primaries and not by party delegates, Chambliss and his allies think they are in a better position than other senior Republican senators who have come under tea-party fire in recent years, such as former Utah senator Bob Bennett, who saw his political career end at a raucous convention in 2010. But Chambliss supporters are increasingly nervous, since the senator has endured previous electoral struggles. In 2008, Chambliss didn’t beat Democrat Jim Martin on the first ballot in the general election and was forced to compete in a runoff.
For the moment, conservative organizations are keeping their powder dry. Even Kremer and the Tea Party Express are unsure about where they will use their resources in 2014, according to Sal Russo, the group’s strategist. FreedomWorks, a leading tea-party group, is also staying out of the fray, according to Dean Clancy, its adviser, at least until its members start to prepare for next cycle. “It’s too early to make a decision,” says Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth. “If there is somebody who runs, they’re going to have to be better on the issues than Chambliss, who has been pretty good.”
“We have two years to go and that’s a lifetime in politics,” Perdue chuckles. “He is going to keep working with everybody, Democrats and Republicans. He’s a problem solver. The Grover Norquist thing doesn’t change that, and Saxby isn’t afraid to speak his mind.”
Perdue, who was at the Cobb County breakfast, knows that some of the tea-party Republicans didn’t cheer Chambliss’s presentation. “Sure, I saw a little of that,” he says. “But at the end of the talk, most people stood up and applauded, and that says a lot.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.