ATLANTA — The worst-kept secret in Georgia politics is official: Rep. Paul Broun is running for the U.S. Senate.
The Athens Republican is the first candidate to enter the 2014 field officially, but he’s certain not to be the last as several GOP congressmen mull a race that blew wide open when Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced last month that he would not seek a third term.
Other Republicans mentioned are Reps. Paul Gingrey of Marietta, Jack Kingston of Savannah and Tom Price of Roswell. National Democrats, meanwhile, say Georgia is a prime pick-up opportunity, though no clear candidates have emerged.
Broun’s candidacy promises that the Republican primary will highlight the party’s most conservative branch. Broun is an outspoken social conservative. A physician, he garnered national attention for calling evolution “lies from the pit of Hell.”
Broun was elected to represent Georgia’s 10th Congressional district in 2007, and he positioned himself to run against Chambliss even before Chambliss bowed out. Eschewing any mention of social issues, the budget was his theme Wednesday as he addressed a few dozen supporters at a hotel in Atlanta.
“America is headed toward a financial melt-down,” he said in remarks that included the phrase “out-of-control spending” at least a half-dozen times. “More money in Washington means more power in Washington, and less money, less power in the hands of the American people.”
Tea party conservatives chided Chambliss for his membership in the Gang of Six, a group of Democratic and GOP senators who tried but failed to come up with a “grand bargain” on fiscal matters. The criticism flourished when Chambliss voted, along with most Senate Republicans, for the so-called fiscal cliff deal that President Barack Obama negotiated with Republicans in January.
Broun did not mention Obama — or Chambliss — in his comments.
He alluded to his Republican House colleagues and potential primary rivals, boasting that he has sponsored more pieces of legislation to cut spending “than any other member of Congress from Georgia.” The savings figure of his proposals, he said, was $30 billion. That’s a few percentage points of the federal budget deficit over each of the last five years.
In an interview after his announcement, Broun did not offer more specific cuts and said Social Security and Medicare — which account for about 40 percent of federal spending — “should be protected.”
For his part, Chambliss has said that he will not try to influence the GOP primary for his seat. The senator said he was retiring out of frustration over congressional gridlock, not out of fear of a primary challenge.
Democrats say that Broun and candidates like him could pose a problem for the GOP, even given the partisan leanings of the Georgia electorate.
“Georgia offers Democrats one of our best pick-up opportunities of the cycle,” said Justin Barasky at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C. “Paul Broun’s announcement suggests a divisive primary is coming in the state that will push Republicans to the extreme right.”
The theory lumps Broun into the same category as Missouri congressman Todd Akin, who tanked a likely GOP Senate victory last fall when he made off-the-cuff comments claiming that women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape.” Gingrey also has taken heat for defending Akin.
Nationally, some top GOP donors have plans to launch a federal campaign committee with the aim of financing candidates who can beat staunch conservatives that may face more difficult general elections.
But Georgia Republican Chairwoman Sue Everhart said she doesn’t see any such effort being effective here. “It would be ideal to settle on one candidate and put them forward, but that’s not going to happen in this Republican Party,” she said.
Everhart said Republican success — the party holds all Georgia executive offices, a near supermajority in the legislature and a majority on state judicial panels — means competing voices.
“The tea partiers feel slighted, and the Ron Paul folks feel like they aren’t welcome at the higher echelon of party power,” said Everhart, a retired banker. “But telling them and their people ‘you can’t run’ isn’t going to happen.”
Atlanta tea party leader Debbie Dooley, a Broun supporter, dismisses attempts by “mainstream Republicans” to squelch conservative influence. “How’d that work out with Mitt Romney,” she quipped.
GOP infighting aside, the question for Democrats is who to run. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has said he is not interested. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta has proven that he can survive a GOP onslaught. He won a comfortable re-election in the 12th Congressional District in November despite a GOP redistricting plan that set up a Republican victory.
He proved himself a prodigious fundraiser and campaigner while Republicans had a nasty primary, but Democrats acknowledge that a statewide race would be expensive, new territory. It is not yet clear how much the national party committee is willing to spend on the race.
Democrats are defending 20 Senate seats in 2014, including several in Southern states that Obama lost twice, and an absolute rule of party politics is that protecting incumbents comes before helping challengers or newcomers.
Barrow has said he no plans “at this time” to run, and national party committee strategists won’t talk about possible candidates.