The Republican Party’s nightmare scenario is a U.S. Senate race so crowded and divisive that Democrats have a shot at the bruised-and-battered eventual nominee.
Yet party leaders are taking strides to avoid overtly culling the field, leaving the race to succeed Republican Saxby Chambliss the kind of wide-open run makes some party insiders cringe.
National GOP groups are wary of being seen as interfering, and influential state politicians are staying on the sidelines. Gov. Nathan Deal, perhaps the only state figure who can play kingmaker, has relayed to several potential challengers who made pilgrimages to his office that he’ll avoid behind-the-scenes tampering.
“I have been asked if I would be the one that would mediate among my friends,” Deal told the AJC in an interview. “I do not value that role and nor will I assume that role.”
While analysts say that stance makes political sense for Deal — a heated primary would only deflect attention from his own re-election campaign — a wild GOP primary could leave Democrats with a solid shot at the coveted Senate seat.
“Does (the GOP primary) become one of those nasty things where either a candidate kind of comes out of it damaged and broken, or is it one of those things where they nominate somebody who struggles statewide?” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “That’s sort of where the hope is right now” for Democrats.
Democrats are pursuing a very different strategy. State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said the party is trying to coalesce around one candidate in the next few weeks. Potential candidates include U.S. Rep. John Barrow, of Augusta, and Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.
“Our whole goal is to get behind one candidate and make sure we’re unified when we get into the election cycle,” said Berlon. “We believe that we can win it and it’s not lost on me the significance that Georgia will play in 2014 and 2016.”
Athens Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, whose far-right positions and fiery comments might prove troublesome in a general election, was the first to formally announce his candidacy, and he’s already begun campaigning across the state. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta and U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Roswell are all considering a run, and others could soon enter the fray.
Democrats are keen to mention Broun in the same breath as other arch-conservative candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Both lost Republican-leaning Senate seats last year, in part because of their comments about rape and abortion.
But conservatives point out that for every Mourdock there is a Rick Berg – the establishment GOP pick in North Dakota who narrowly lost his race even though Mitt Romney won the state by about 20 percentage points.
Sue Everhart, the head of the Georgia Republican Party, said she expects a messy race to produce a strong candidate who can raise the $12 million she said is needed to run a solid statewide campaign.
Trying to winnow the field is “not the Republican way,” she said. “I’m not concerned about it. I think that the right people will emerge. The party won’t be playing favorites to anyone.”
That’s not to say other groups won’t try. American Crossroads, a deep-pocketed group co-founded by former George W. Bush consigliere Karl Rove, recently made waves by announcing it would form a new political action committee in an effort to boost more “electable” Republican candidates in 2014. The Tea Party Patriots responded by announcing a Super PAC of its own for more conservative hopefuls.
National political handicappers consider Georgia likely to pick another Republican senator, but they say Democrats’ chances could improve if Broun or a candidate with similar vulnerabilities is nominated.
Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the bigger the Republican field gets, the better chance a hard-right candidate has of sneaking into a runoff and pulling off an upset. Broun himself pulled off such a feat in his first election to Congress in 2007.
But meddling from outside national groups holds its own risks.
“The Republicans haven’t figured this out yet,” Sabato said. “They’ve tried both ways and they’ve suffered in both circumstances. In 2010 they got involved (in primaries) and the tea party ran all over them and nominated candidates that lost in the fall. And last time around they stayed out of the process and then bad candidates were nominated and they lost anyway. They can’t win for losing.”
Deal, for his part, said a hands-off approach will yield the best candidate.
“The good news is it appears we’re going to have some qualified people that are interested in filling the position,” the governor said. “I’m not going to get involved trying to pick a candidate or anything like that.”