By Tom Baxter
When Saxby Chambliss was elected to Congress in 1994, he was the first Republican to represent a rural Deep South district since Reconstruction, which made him stand out in the big freshman GOP class that came to Washington that tumultuous year.
He could have been described then as a pioneer, which is hardly the way he seemed last week when Chambliss announced he’d decided not to seek a third U.S. Senate term next year. The two-decade arc of that Washington career spans much of the story of what’s happened in American politics since the year when the Democrats lost control of Congress for the first time in decades, and Newt Gingrich declared Year One of the new Republican Era.
The Chambliss announcement was about as unsurprising as a political surprise can be. Belying his laid-back, country gentry image, Chambliss has had to do more heavy lifting to stay in office than any of his Georgia Republican colleagues, and it was small wonder that the prospect of another hard race was unappealing to him.
The court-drawn map that came out of the Miller v. Johnson decision placed his home outside his district before the 1996 election, prompting him to move to Macon and wage an expensive but successful re-election fight with Democrat Jim Wiggins just to hang on for a second term. His 2002 U.S. Senate challenge to Democrat Max Cleland was one of the most bruising campaigns in recent history, and he failed to avoid a runoff in 2008 against Jim Martin. Had he run next year, his strongest challenge might have come from within his own party, from a list that starts with U.S. Rep. Tom Price, also the likeliest first hat in the ring now that he’s leaving.
The notorious ad in the 2002 campaign in which Cleland’s face was morphed into that of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden was only the most egregious example of a wider Republican effort to politicize the response to 9/11, and it wasn’t really vital to his success. But it forever embittered Democrats against Chambliss, no matter how willing he may have been to work across the aisle to forge a compromise on the debt ceiling crisis and other issues.
Correspondingly, that willingness to cooperate was the root of his problems with Republicans. Chambliss got a huge boost from George W. Bush in his first Senate race, and as Bush’s fortunes declined over his two terms, so the affable golfer from Moultrie fell from favor with an increasingly disillusioned and hard-edged Republican base, as distrustful of compromise and finesse as punk rockers.
It’s somewhat ironic that his retirement announcement came just days before the announcement of a bipartisan Senate immigration reform proposal. When Chambliss broached the subject of immigration at the 2007 state Republican convention, he was booed roundly. The last election might seem a grand exoneration of Chambliss’ position, and proof the Republicans would have been a lot better off if they had tackled the issue six years ago. But there’s no reason to think being right on that issue would have helped him at all in next year’s Republican primary.
Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, sees Chambliss’ departure as “a prominent manifestation of a national trend, the decline of rural influence as the share of rural population keeps hitting record lows – 16 percent in the last census.”
It’s unlikely the state will again have anything comparable to the clout it has had in shaping agricultural policies since the Talmadge days, nor is it likely either the Republican or the Democratic nominee will come from far outside the Atlanta orbit. Among the Republicans, the only South Georgia name mentioned so far has been that of state Sen. Ross Tolleson of Perry.
The rural South in which Chambliss made a beachhead for the GOP 19 years ago is now as solidly Republican as any region of the country, and yet its influence, both in state and national politics, continues to wane.
The next senator from Georgia, whoever that turns out to be, is likely to be a candidate more concerned with urban-suburban issues – and less willing to compromise on any issues – than his or her predecessor.