Conservatives have Georgia on their minds.
With Republican Rep. Jack Kingston’s announcement this week that he will run for Senate, the state is on track to have three open House seats and an open Senate race in 2014. The unusual confluence of races without an incumbent has movement conservatives dreaming of consolidating power in the Southern state next year.
“There are some opportunities in other states but not quite like Georgia,” said Russ Walker, who runs the super PAC for FreedomWorks, a tea-party-aligned group.
At the top of the conservatives’ wish list is replacing retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who has publicly flirted with raising taxes as part of a grand budget accord with Democrats, with an unrepentant hard-liner.
Already, three sitting Republican members of Georgia's House delegation have jumped into the race to replace Chambliss—Kingston and Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun. Their entrances, in turn, have translated into three open House seats.
“There’s no doubt that Georgia represents a great opportunity for conservatives, both in the House and the Senate,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, the political arm affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
All three congressman running for the Senate seat regularly rank on scorecards as more conservative than the average House Republican. Broun scored a 96-percent rating from Heritage Action, for example, and was one of only three House Republicans last year to receive a 100-percent rating from the Club for Growth, the conservative antitax group. Gingrey is often not far behind, scoring 85 percent from Heritage and 89 percent from the Club.
Kingston, who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has rated slightly lower (he scored a 71 percent on Heritage’s scorecard). But as he entered the race this week, he vowed that he “will yield no ground to any of my opponents as to who is the most conservative.”
“We’re watching the Senate race closely. It’s an important race to us,” Walker said. “We see it as an opportunity to find somebody who is more closely aligned to us on policy.”
Walker said the current field is likely to have more than one such candidate. “The question becomes about message delivery, and the way they carry themselves and the way they talk,” he said.
The concern for some in the GOP establishment is that conservatives aren’t the only ones eyeing Chambliss’s seat. In a year with few vulnerable Republicans on the ballot, Senate Democrats consider Georgia’s open seat to be one of their party’s best plays. Democrats have courted Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., and Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, to run.
“It is one of our top pick-up opportunities of our cycle,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Barasky said the race to the right in the Senate GOP primary will only help the Democrats’ cause. “You’re either going to have someone who’s already positioned on the extreme right or someone who has to position themselves on the extreme right to win a primary,” he said.
With the Senate GOP field mostly formed, the primaries to replace Kingston, Gingrey, and Broun have been slower to develop. Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, said his group had yet to interview candidates in any of the three races.
Still, the rare chance at three open seats in a Southern state that The Cook Political Report rates as solidly Republican is alluring. “Obviously, open Republican seats are our bread and butter and we’d look at those seats before almost anything,” Keller said.
This article appears in the May 3, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.