On Saturday morning, December 1, Senator Saxby Chambliss pulled into a parking lot at a strip mall in Marietta, Ga., across the street from a Baptist church. Most of the shopping center’s units were quiet, except for building 799, which houses the Cobb County GOP’s headquarters. As Chambliss opened the office’s glass door, a crowd greeted him. The room was loud, warm, and packed with over 100 bustling Republicans. The tables were piled high with eggs and grits. “It was a great turnout,” says Helen Story, a Cobb County Republican-party official. “Everybody loved the homemade biscuits.” Chambliss inhaled and grinned, and ambled toward the podium. He shook hands and spoke with a gaggle of local volunteers. Others, however, eyed him warily and lingered by the coffee pot.
Over the next hour, the scene was occasionally tense, with spasms of murmured discontent, but it never became overtly hostile, according to several other attendees. Chambliss poured on the charm and he was politely welcomed. But he was not embraced. The gray-haired power brokers like him, but many of the younger firebrands aren’t exactly fans of the easygoing attorney, who was once ranked the second-best golfer in the Senate by Golf Digest. As he introduced Chambliss, the event’s host asked the audience to stay cool. “There were a few faces there that I did not recognize, so I told everyone to be respectful,” says Joe Dendy, the Cobb County Republican chairman. “We may not wholeheartedly agree with every speaker, but we always show respect.”
For Chambliss, the weekend appearance in this Atlanta suburb was about more than breaking bread. After a tumultuous week in the national spotlight, and with his principles being questioned, the 69-year-old incumbent was eager to reassure conservatives that he is still one of them. And he tried, mightily. He spoke for over 30 minutes and fielded questions. He shared stories from Capitol Hill, where he has been a prominent figure in the debt talks as a member of the “Gang of Eight,” a group working behind the scenes to broker a debt agreement. Over and over again, he touted his fiscal conservatism.
But it wasn’t all boasts and Beltway anecdotes. Chambliss also chided Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, for boxing Senate Republicans into a corner on the deficit. “When my buddy Tom Coburn from Oklahoma proposed [an elimination of the ethanol tax credit] last year, and it came up for a vote, he was called by Grover Norquist, who compared him to Alger Hiss,” Chambliss said. “When I said I care about my country more than I do about a 20-year-old pledge, that’s what I’m talking about,” he added, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
No one was surprised to hear Chambliss knock Norquist, since he has done so frequently, but it nevertheless irritated conservatives, especially in this GOP county. “For the most part, I think folks liked what he had to say, but there were a handful of people who told me, after he left, that they didn’t agree with his take,” Dendy recalls.
Two decades ago, Chambliss signed Norquist’s pledge to never raise taxes. At the time, he was a fresh House member from southern Georgia, a foot soldier in the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich, who represented portions of Cobb County. Republicans were on a mission to shrink government, and the pledge was an accessory to the cause.
These days, Chambliss believes Norquist’s strict interpretation of the pledge is one of the reasons party leaders can’t seem to cut a debt deal, and he is prepared to ignore it. “You sent me to Washington to think for myself,” Chambliss told the crowd. “I don’t want to be dictated to by anybody.” That comment and others like it have generated intense national media coverage, and center-left editorialists have praised the two-term senator, calling him a reasonable man. But many conservatives have had enough of his bipartisan gangs, his musings about revenue, and his talk-show appearances. They want him gone.
Chambliss is keenly aware of this, and in a phone interview he acknowledges that there is a group of vocal conservatives in Georgia who would love to see him gone. But this latest battle with Norquist, he says, isn’t about principles, but tactics. He says he wants the same things as his conservative critics: a balanced budget, lower taxes rates, and less debt. He just has a different view about how to get there, and the difference is the company he keeps. Chambliss loves the idea of crafting a deal with moderate Democrats, of finding a way to agree “for the good of the country,” as he often says. “The optimal goal is a big deal,” he tells me. “I know we probably won’t be able to do that over the next 30 days, but hopefully we can put a process in place that moves in that direction.”
Chambliss bets he can win over more Republicans if he continues to make appearances at county breakfasts, rubber-chicken dinners, and town meetings. “I’m not worried about the political thing,” he says. “If you start to do that, you make too many wrong votes.”
But Georgia’s 2014 Republican Senate primary looms, and the appetite for a Chambliss challenge is growing, especially among the tea-party ranks. On Twitter, two prominent Georgia conservatives, RedState founder Erick Erickson and Tea Party Express chairman Amy Kremer, have started to use the hash tag “#Taxby” to refer to the senator, as have hundreds of their followers. Erickson even briefly flirted with a primary bid. “We are a very red state, and he’s anything but conservative,” Kremer says in a phone interview.
According to GOP insiders, three Republicans are considered the leading primary contenders: Representatives Tom Price and Paul Broun, both doctors, as well as former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel. Several lesser-known politicians, such as state senator Barry Loudermilk, state representative Ed Setzler, and former House candidate Michael Opitz, are also interested. They’re closely watching Chambliss as the senator makes his case. “I’m not ruling out anything,” Price says in an interview. “Sometimes opportunity comes along and you weigh whether or not you can be of service.”
Broun is also coy about his political future, telling me that he’s focused on his House district. But he hopes Chambliss and other lawmakers firmly oppose tax increases. “We need to raise taxpayers, not raise taxes,” he says. “The pledge is a pledge I made to citizens in Georgia. It also fits my philosophy that government is too large.”
Other potential candidates mentioned include former presidential candidates Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. In an e-mail, Gingrich ruled out a bid on Tuesday, and Cain has told the Daily Caller that he won’t run.
Tom Perdue, Chambliss’s longtime political strategist and campaign manager, is confident that Chambliss will beat any comer. The senator, he says, hasn’t become a liberal; he merely has talked about tax reform. “I don’t make much of all that chatter,” Perdue says. Chambliss, he adds, will not be retiring, as some operatives have whispered. “We have about $1.5 million in the bank and the senator, who I talk to almost every day, is looking forward to the campaign. Does he know that he is never going to be able to please everybody? Of course he does. But that has never been his biggest concern.”
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.