WASHINGTON — Citing frustration with the Obama administration and congressional gridlock, Georgia’s senior senator, Republican Saxby Chambliss, said Friday that he won’t seek re-election next year, dealing a blow to Senate Republicans and bolstering Democratic hopes of regaining the seat after a 12-year absence.
With nearly 20 years in the U.S. House 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.
As a member of the “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 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.
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Chambliss, 69, downplayed the threat of a primary challenge, saying his state and national support have 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.
“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.”
Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Chambliss’ departure will turn Georgia into one of the party’s “best pickup opportunities” in the 2014 elections.
Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said the party would start looking for potential candidates to fill the seat.
Kremer said two Georgia Republicans and tea-party favorites, U.S. Reps. Paul Broun and Tom Price, had been rumored to be considering a primary challenge against Chambliss. Kremer said Friday that she’d support Price if he decided to run.
Chambliss was first elected to represent Georgia’s 8th District in the U.S. House in 1994. He won a contentious Senate battle over incumbent Democrat and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland in 2002. The campaign was notable for its bitterness. Democrats and Republicans alike criticized Chambliss for a campaign ad about a procedural vote on a homeland-security bill that linked Cleland, a multiple amputee as a result of his service in Vietnam, with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The ad attempted to portray Cleland as soft on national security.
Running for re-election in 2008, Chambliss defeated Democrat Jim Martin in a contest that ended in a runoff election.