Retiring Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss compiled one of the most conservative records in the Senate over his decade of Congressional service. But his recent sins in the eyes of the most conservative party activists--voting for the fiscal cliff deal, for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and joining Democrats in the compromise-oriented "gangs," -- made his re-election prospects unexpectedly challenging in 2014.
Under that pressure, Chambliss decided he won't seek reelection in 2014, heightening the volatility and significance of the Georgia Senate race.
In a statement announcing his decision, Chambliss said political pressure played no role in leaving the Senate. He instead attributed his retirement to the growing degree of gridlock in Washington.
But he was already facing the prospect of a messy re-election battle, against many of his own former allies. For many on the right, Chambliss' appeal had faded beyond recovery.
In December, just as the fiscal cliff media furor began to boil over in Washington, the senator spoke to about a hundred people at the Cobb County Republican headquarters, according to National Review's Robert Costa.
Chambliss shook hands and shared Capitol Hill anecdotes. He talked about Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn who proposed repealing an ethanol tax credit and how Grover Norquist compared him to Alger Hiss for his apostasy. “When I said I care about my country more than I do about a 20-year-old pledge, that’s what I’m talking about,” Chambliss said, according to Costa’s account. But that did not go over well. "Many conservatives have had enough of his bipartisan gangs, his musings about revenue, and his talk-show appearances. They want him ousted.”
Chambliss defended his position at the time by saying voters sent him to Washington to think for himself. But tea partiers see things differently.
"He's a real nice guy. Most guys up there [in Washington] are. But he's outlived his usefulness and that's why he was sent there--to be useful," said Jack Staver a tea party activist with the Northwest Georgia 9/12 Project.
Red State’s Erick Erickson, whose high-profile bashing of his former boss generated talk that he might run for the seat himself, recently wrote scathingly about Chambliss’ establishment turn in recent years.
A symbol of Chambliss' commitment to small government and low taxes was the oversized copy of the Americans for Tax Reform pledge that he kept in his campaign office, Erickson wrote in his takedown of Chambliss late last year. "When his signature would begin to fade, he’d re-sign the pledge on top of his old signature," Erickson wrote.
"Saxby Chambliss is waffling around like a dog off its leash for the first time," Erickson added. He later backed away from the statement, but the damage was done.
Nonetheless, the news of Chambliss' retirement surprised some GOP insiders because they saw Chambliss as a principled conservative whose eagerness to compromise played well in parts of the state.
"I was pretty surprised," said Republican strategist Ralph Reed. "I think it's a great loss for the state of Georgia."