The enduring GOP threat of primary challengers

Updated
The enduring GOP threat of primary challengers
The enduring GOP threat of primary challengers
Associated Press

Remember Karen Handel? She was the subject of national interest several months ago when Handel, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and staunch opponent of abortion rights, directed Komen for the Cure to cut off all grants to Planned Parenthood.

The result was a fiasco. Komen is still trying to undo the damage, and Handel’s role as the organization’s senior vice-president for public policy quickly ended.

Nearly a year later, Handel has a very different position in mind.

Saxby Chambliss, the two-term senior senator from Georgia, could face a Republican primary challenge in 2014.

Activists and donors alike are expressing dissatisfaction with Chambliss for his perceived move to the left on issues like immigration and taxes. And members of Georgia’s House delegation, as reported by Roll Call, like Tom Price, Paul Broun, and Tom Graves, may be considering running against Chambliss in the primary. But GOP and conservative sources say there’s another possible candidate: former secretary of state Karen Handel.

“She’s considering it,” says Rob Sims, a Republican campaign consultant who worked on Handel’s unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. Kay Godwin, the co-chairman of Georgia Conservatives in Action, says Handel is among those she’s hearing who could successfully challenge Chambliss.

Now, we’ll have to wait and see if Handel, or anyone else, actually follows through and launches a primary challenge against Chambliss, but the fact that it’s even a possibility speaks to a larger truth about the current state of Republican politics.

By any sane standard, Chambliss is not a moderate. He’s not even close to what anyone in the American mainstream would characterize as “the center.” According to the most up-to-date information, Chambliss has a lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union of 92.5, putting him well to the right of most of his Republican colleagues. The Georgian’s most recent VoteView score puts him at number 80 – with 0 being the most liberal and 100 the most conservative – to the right of prominent conservative senators like Mitch McConnell, John Thune, and Orrin Hatch.

In other words, when making a list of conservatives who shouldn’t have to worry about their far-right flank, Saxby Chambliss would be on it. And yet, here we are.

Why would the right be unsatisfied with Chambliss? For one thing, he’s worked for over a year with Sen. Mark Warner, a moderate Virginia Democrat, on a debt-reduction plan that includes modest tax increases. For another, Chambliss seems inclined to pass comprehensive immigration reform, or at least something resembling it.

That, apparently, buys him a one-way ticket to Primary Town, his overall voting record notwithstanding.

This is important because it helps underscore one of the key reasons so little governing gets done in Washington. In the Obama era, GOP policymakers have been conditioned to believe compromise is itself repulsive, but for those who consider cooperating across the aisle, there’s a constant reminder: bipartisan governing will end your career.

Several years ago, a figure like Chambliss would blow off talk like this as mindless chatter, but that’s no longer an option – recent history offers too many examples of Republican incumbents losing GOP primaries to extremist challengers. Just ask Utah’s Bob Bennett, Indiana’s Dick Lugar, and even Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski (though she eventually won after losing her primary). Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter was driven from Republican politics by a primary threat, and even folks like Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Arizona’s John McCain had to move sharply to the right to stave off intra-party challenges.

Pieces like this one from The Weekly Standard are the practical equivalent of a horse head in Chambliss bed – if you know what’s good for you, don’t even consider working in good faith with colleagues who think differently than you do.

Saxby Chambliss

The enduring GOP threat of primary challengers

Updated