Chambliss' retirement stirs up Georgia politics

By Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – Saxby Chambliss spoiled the weekend for a lot of Georgia politicians with his Friday announcement that he would retire from the U.S. Senate next year rather than seek re-election.
Since word leaked out after he notified his staff and colleagues, people who picture themselves as Senate material have been contacting potential supporters to gauge whether to enter the race. Their decisions will create a domino effect as lower-rung officials decide to move up to fill vacancies created by Senate candidates.
It's not as though people weren't already thinking about the seat. Conservatives had vowed to mount a primary challenge against him, and a telephone poll was in the field the night before his announcement on behalf of an undisclosed Democratic candidate testing Chambliss' political strengths and weaknesses.
After the news, the first candidates to publicly express interest in running were GOP U.S. Reps. Jack Kingston of Savannah, Paul Broun of Athens and Tom Price of Roswell.
Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 expressed slightly less specific sentiment on her Facebook account that evening.
"Thx to everyone for your encouragement," she wrote. "Let's see how things play out."
Among the first calls any Georgia Republican hopeful makes is one to Eric Tanenblatt, a managing director of the lobbying side of Atlanta law firm McKenna Long and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue's first chief of staff. 
Not only does he lead the well-connected firm's national government affairs group, but he is one of the top political fund raisers in the state, which, of course, is part of the reason for his influence. Most recently, he was Mitt Romney's Georgia chairman, raising a record $19 million here, having played similar roles for both Presidents Bush.
He took a few minutes Friday afternoon between candidate calls to chat with a reporter, another reason for his influence in state politics. He began by praising Chambliss as a hard worker who has been a leader in two major areas for 20 years, national intelligence and agriculture, and for working across the aisle with Democrats.
"I'm sure it's been very frustrating for him," Tanenblatt said, noting that he had not read the senator's announcement that listed annoyance with partisan gridlock as his reason for retiring.
As Chambliss throws up his hands in resignation, there is no shortage of candidates eager to take on the chore. Major donors are just as put out with Washington and eager to back someone feeling the same way, Tanenblatt said.
“They couldn’t wait for a more exciting development. Everything’s been turned upside down," he said.
There is an understandable urge to get a head start, become the frontrunner and lock up endorsements and contributors. But Tanenblatt counsels for calm.
“People need to step back and understand there’ll be plenty of time.”
After all, the last governor's race illustrates how fluid a campaign is. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was considered the frontrunner the moment Perdue won a second term, but Cagle eventually decided to keep his own job. Eric Johnson of Savannah, the Senate president pro tempore at the time, reacted to Cagle's decision by moving from the lieutenant governor's race to the top spot, earning himself predictions that his savvy and contacts would make him a formidable contender.
However, for much of the early campaign, then-Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine led polls and fundraising, but he failed to make it to the primary runoff when Handel edged him and Johnson out. 
The ultimate winner, Nathan Deal, was the last candidate to enter the race.
Those jockeying to be first out of the starting gate in the Senate contest should keep a clear head, Tanenblatt advises.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be the only ones in this race," he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t find someone outside of the political scene, in the business community, didn’t jump into the race.”
Tanenblatt offers informed insight about the thinking of major campaign donors. With no clear shoo-in, they are inclined to take their time deciding whom they'll back.
That is a valuable vetting process as illustrated by the 2002 gubernatorial race when then-Superintendent of Schools Linda Schrenko fell short in their scrutiny and failed to raise enough money to fuel her campaign against Perdue. Their judgment was confirmed when she pleaded guilty to federal embezzlement charges.
Since the big givers are concentrated in metro Atlanta, does geography give an advantage to one candidate, say a Price or a Handel over a Broun or a Kingston?
Not necessarily, Tanenblatt says. Political longevity can neutralize it.
“For those that don’t live in the Atlanta area, if you have been around the public eye for a while, I think that benefits you.”
The Tea Party and general grassroots activism is also rewriting the traditional political scripts, he adds.
As a result, little that will be reported in the next few days is likely to determine the eventual outcome in November, 2014. But, it will be a good show.

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