Democrats are sounding a surprisingly bullish note in the wake of Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ retirement, with DSCC executive director Guy Cecil proclaiming Georgia provides the party a real chance to win a seat in the deep South. “Georgia will now offer Democrats one of our best pick-up opportunities of the cycle,” he wrote in a statement Friday.
That’s not saying a whole lot since the Senate map is particularly unfriendly for the party this cycle. But Democrats have good reason to at least feel the seat is winnable under the right circumstances, given the GOP’s recent track record of nominating the rare candidates that manage to miss out on seats that appear safely in their hands.
Looking at the field of prospective Republican candidates, it’s not out of the question another not-ready-for-primetime candidate –- in Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock-like fashion -- could emerge. Rep. Paul Broun, who sounded like a likely candidate even before Chambliss retired, made headlines this month for saying President Obama upholds the Soviet Constitution, not the American one. Last year, he said evolution was a lie "straight from the pit of hell." Rep. Phil Gingrey said he partially agreed with Akin’s views on “legitimate rape.” Herman Cain, a longer-shot candidate, showed his myriad vulnerabilities in clear view during the last presidential primary. Other members of Congress whose names have been floated, like Reps. Tom Price and Tom Graves, are more palatable candidates, but are among the most conservative members in the House.
This race will pose an early test for Republicans and newly-minted NRSC chairman Jerry Moran for how involved they plan to be in primaries. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel has expressed interest in the race. She would be the type of conservative who should easily be able to prevail, even against credible Democratic competition in a general election. But in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, she faced attacks over being insufficiently opposed to abortion, and lost to current Gov. Nathan Deal. Former governor Sonny Perdue is another prospective candidate who would be a clear favorite, if nominated. Recruiting these types of first-tier candidates to run and extending support to them would be a clear sign of the committee learning from its mistakes in past cycles.
Nominating a principled conservative shouldn’t be a problem in Georgia, given its conservative leanings and racially polarized electorate. Deal, a very conservative former member of Congress, comfortably won the general election in 2010 against a popular former Democratic governor. Even though Obama managed to win at least 45 percent of the vote there in both his campaigns, getting that extra support from conservative white voters is particularly difficult in the South. (Obama won a mere 23 percent of the white vote there in 2008.) To compete for the seat, Democrats face an even greater challenge than Republicans -- recruit a moderate-to-conservative candidate who clears the primary field. Rep. John Barrow, who just won re-election in a heavily-conservative district, would be an obvious person to turn to.
One other advantage for Republicans: In Georgia, candidates need to win a 50 percent majority in primaries, or the race heads into a runoff. That high primary threshold should prevent a weak candidate from emerging, and would allow party leaders to coalesce behind the stronger of two opponents in the second round. Akin narrowly prevailed in a three-way primary; he probably would have faced more difficulty winning a one-on-one runoff.
But even though odds clearly favor Republicans to hang onto this seat, somehow the party has managed to bungle otherwise easy opportunities in the recent past. There are already candidates emerging who fit the not-ready-for-primetime bill. It’s not too early to pay close attention to see how the GOP acts to prevent another Akin-like disaster, to get a sense of their overall fortunes in 2014.