WASHINGTON -- Citing frustration with the Obama administration and congressional gridlock, Georgia’s senior senator, Republican Saxby Chambliss announced Monday that he won’t seek re-election next year, dealing a blow to Senate Republicans while bolstering Democratic hopes of regaining the seat after a 12-year absence.
With 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate behind him, Chambliss is the increasingly rare breed of conservative Republican willing to work across party lines with Democrats. His bipartisan tendencies haven’t sat well with the GOP’s powerful tea party faction, which routinely puts ideological principle above political necessity.
As a member of the so-called “gang of six” bipartisan senators who tried to hammer out a deal to reduce the nation’s debt, Chambliss became a target of conservative ire last year.
His recent vote to avert the “fiscal cliff” and increase taxes for households that earn more than $450,000 only deepened the anger, prompting Amy Kremer, the national chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, to declare that Chambliss would face a conservative Republican primary challenge in the 2014 election.
In his decision to retire, Chambliss downplayed the threat of a primary challenge, saying his state and national support have only broadened “due to the stances I have taken.”
“Lest anyone think this decision is about a primary challenge, I have no doubt that had I decided to be a candidate, I would have won re-election,” he said in a statement.
“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. “The debt ceiling debacle of 2011 and the recent fiscal cliff vote showed Congress at its worst and, sadly, I don’t see the legislative gridlock and partisan posturing improving anytime soon.”
Democrats, however, see their prospects in the Peach State on the rise. Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Chambliss’ departure turned Georgia into one of the party’s “best pickup opportunities” in the 2014 elections.
“There are already several reports of the potential for a divisive primary that will push Republicans to the extreme right,” Cecil said. “Regardless, there’s no question that the demographics of the state have changed and Democrats are gaining strength. This will be a top priority.”
Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said the party would start looking for potential candidates to fill the seat.
Of all the states that voted Republican in the last presidential election, Berlon said, Georgia had the second highest percentage of Democratic voters, at 45.5 percent. By the gubernatorial race in 2014, he predicted, Georgia might be a 50-50 state, or majority Democratic.
“We can win statewide here as early as 2014 and certainly by 2016,” Berlon said. “Because of redistricting, we only have about 30 percent of the seats, but we have 45.5 percent of the vote.”
But Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats would have a “very uphill battle” to win Chambliss’ seat.