Beware of flying elbows this weekend in Athens, as the annual Georgia GOP convention will feature candidates and their backers jockeying for position in a cavalcade of wide-open races across the state.
The man who started the dominoes is U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who will not run again in 2014. Three Republican U.S. House members are competing for the vacancy, leaving a trio of open seats – an exceedingly rare phenomenon. And former Secretary of State Karen Handel’s decision to enter the fray Friday morning jumbles the race even more.
“It’s a big shake-up,” said Matt Brewster, the Athens-Clark County GOP chairman and host for the weekend’s proceedings.
The formal business Friday and Saturday at The Classic Center is to elect a new state GOP chairman for the first time since 2007. Delegates will choose among four potential replacements for Sue Everhart, who is departing the post.
But the gathering will also be thick with intrigue for the Senate race and congressional spots, even though the primary vote remains more than a year away.
Conventions are “an opportunity for candidates to have what I call a show of force – people with their buttons on, signs around the convention center, talking them up,” said Kerwin Swint, political science professor at Kennesaw State University. “It’s a way to show momentum and strength to party activists as well as potential contributors. There will be a lot of that going on.”
The fields are shaping up, as all the members of Congress have made up their minds whether or not to run.
U.S. Reps. Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Jack Kingston of Savannah are trying to move over to the Senate. The rest of the House delegation is staying put, though the GOP Senate field is likely to expand further as former Dollar General CEO David Perdue are looking closely at running.
Crowds are forming for the congressional seats, too.
In Gingrey’s 11th district, former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr of Smyrna; state Rep. Ed Lindsey of Atlanta; state Sen. Barry Loudermilk of Cassville, and businesswoman Tricia Pridemore of Marietta are in the race.
“That 11th is going to be a fun dynamic,” said GOP consultant Chip Lake, who is advising Gingrey’s Senate run, alluding to the big personalities of the participants.
Barr ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket and was a major figure in Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Lindsey is a Gold Dome power broker as House majority whip. Loudermilk is a tea party-friendly legislator who has championed anti-abortion legislation. And Pridemore, a close ally of Gov. Nathan Deal, was defeated by Everhart for state GOP chairman in 2011.
The 10th District race to replace Broun is drawing candidates from all corners of a district that spans from a slice of Gwinnett County down into rural eastern parts of the state.
So far that field includes state Rep. Donna Sheldon of Dacula; Baptist minister and radio host Jody Hice of Walton County; attorney Gary Gerrard of Lexington; former Army colonel Stephen Simpson from Milledgeville, who lost a primary to Broun last year; former state Sen. John Douglas of Newton County; former Columbia County GOP chairman Brian Slowinski, and Jackson businessman Mike Collins, son of former Rep. Mac Collins.
Brewster, the Clark County GOP chairman, said the candidates should have corners of strength in their hometowns but none has strength districtwide – or in population-heavy Athens.
In the coastal 1st District, which Kingston has held for 20 years, candidates so far include lobbyist and former Kingston staffer David Schwarz of Savannah; state Sen. Buddy Carter of Pooler, and Darwin Carter of Bacon County, who has lost campaigns for state agricultural commissioner and state House.
The three congressional seats are almost certain to remain Republican, and Democrats’ hopes for grabbing the Senate depend on the GOP candidate emerging severely damaged from the primary. Many in both parties see Georgia Democrats becoming more competitive in 2016 and beyond thanks in part to the state’s rising minority population.
The weekend’s controversial special guest, former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove, who speaks Saturday, will arrive with a warning against Georgia Republicans getting fat and happy with their statewide office monopoly and Gold Dome super-majority.
“We’d better recognize that change is a constant in politics and the way to lose your majority is to take it for granted that it will always be the way that it is today,” Rove told radio host Martha Zoller this week. “If anything, there needs to be an effort to re-energize the grassroots of the party, to grow our volunteer get-out-the-vote operation so it exceeds in sophistication and energy and number of contacts … what the Democrats do.”
Today Rove helps run the deep-pocketed Crossroads groups that have promised to support in some cases more general-election-ready Republicans in Senate primaries in 2014, after some candidate flops last year.
Some saw that as a dig against the tea party, and pointed out that several establishment-backed Senate candidates fell short too. Debbie Dooley, the longtime Republican activist and tea party leader, said she would distribute stickers for Rove’s speech saying “Beware the RINO” – an acronym for Republican In Name Only.
Dooley and fellow grassroots leaders are planning a news conference Friday to announce a $400,000 precinct-by-precinct organizing effort called the Georgia Integrity Project, dedicated to electing conservative candidates in 2014. They see the bevy of open seats as a unique chance to put more tea party candidates into office.
The split between those looking for the party to tack to the right and those looking to broaden its appeal will be on display in Athens. Chambliss, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and Gov. Nathan Deal are scheduled to speak Friday. On Saturday the House members – including three trying to demonstrate conservative bona fides for a primary fight – will take the stage, as will Rove.
Said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, “There’s a bit of a tension there.”
Recent Georgia GOP conventions have featured some memorable moments. Here are a few:
2007: A few members in the crowd boo U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss when he discusses his role in writing an immigration reform bill. The bill later dies in the Senate, with Chambliss voting against it.
2009: Gubernatorial hopeful Karen Handel makes a splash with a video depicting foe John Oxendine as a lumbering beast.
2011: In a rare rebuke to a sitting governor, delegates spurn Gov. Nathan Deal’s choice for state party chairman, Tricia Pridemore, to re-elect Sue Everhart.