WASHINGTON – The trio of Southern gentlemen came to the Senate together in 2003, the leading edge of a renegade Republican class set on shaking up the chamber’s staid ways and aggressively promoting the Bush administration’s conservative agenda.
Ten years later, Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are now establishment deal makers and elder statesmen — roles that earn them respect in Washington but could lead to tough challenges from fellow Republicans when they run for re-election next year.
On Friday, Chambliss announced that there will be no re-election for him, opting for retirement over another run that was certain to include a heated primary challenge, possibly from several candidates.
Chambliss took pains to say that he would have won and instead cited Washington “gridlock” as his reason for retiring.
Chambliss’ departure is another blow to the pragmatic wing of the Senate, with a lineup of his potential successors all hailing from the staunchly conservative camp of Georgia Republicans.
Sen. Tom Harkin a five-term Iowa Democrat and one of his party’s most outspoken liberals, then announced Saturday that he too will not seek re-election, presenting both Democrats and Republicans with further key tests of their midterm electoral strategies.
Harkin’s surprise announcement makes him the third senator up for re-election this cycle to announce his retirement, along with Chambliss and Sen. John Rockefeller IV.
The race to succeed Harkin likely will be one of the most competitive Senate contests next year and will be key to either party’s chances of controlling the chamber. Democrats hold a 55-seat majority but will be defending 20 of the 34 seats up for grabs; Republicans need to gain six seats to retake the majority.
Harkin was first elected to the House in 1974 and won his Senate seat in 1984. He was a champion of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992 and was a key supporter of President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Chambliss’ successor is likely to contribute to a rightward movement over the past four years that has made the ranks of Senate Republicans more conservative, but also has led to repeated political disappointment. A handful of 2010 and 2012 Republican primaries produced nominees who bungled their way to defeat after victory once appeared certain.
What happens with the other two Southerners could go a long way to determining the ideological makeup of the Senate Republican caucus.
Alexander and Graham are both running, raising money and appearing throughout their states.
Alexander, a former two-term governor and U.S. education secretary, has the stronger footing for the moment, having locked up the endorsements of his state’s GOP congressional delegation and every prominent Republican state official.
Graham has no prominent challenger yet, but Republicans are sizing up the race trying to decide if he is ripe for a challenge.
That Alexander, Chambliss and Graham have found themselves in this situation, a decade after debuting as rabble rousers who helped return the chamber to GOP control, is the latest demonstration of how much the Republican Party has changed. Its voters more than ever demand a confrontational tone and in-your-face tactics.
Before his Friday announcement, Chambliss had been viewed as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent to a challenge from within. His apostasies to the new Republican posture were numerous in recent years, most prominently being his close partnership with Sen. Mark Warner in an effort to craft a bipartisan package of tax hikes and entitlement cuts to rein in the federal government’s $16.4 trillion debt.
Alexander appears to have followed a trail blazed by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Orrin Hatch of Utah, both of whom faced potentially stiff primary opponents, in 2010 and 2012 respectively, but ran very aggressive campaigns that thwarted their challengers. His key has been maintaining a very visible presence in Tennessee, where tea party activists have had limited success in statewide races.
Alexander’s diagnosis of defeated Republican incumbents such as former Sens. Robert Bennett of Utah, who lost in a primary challenge in 2010, and Richard Lugar of Indiana, who similarly lost in 2012, is that they had lost visibility among local activists. “They lose because they have drifted away from the people,” Alexander said, adding that he maintains an “intense and intact relationship” with local party officials.
Like Chambliss, Alexander has recently focused on bipartisan deal-making, working with the Georgian on debt issues and helping secure a rules reform pact last week with Democrats. He even quit his leadership post in 2011 so that he could free himself to work in a more bipartisan fashion.
Graham falls somewhere between Alexander and Chambliss in terms of vulnerability to a conservative challenge. He entered Congress in 1995 as a foot soldier in the Newt Gingrich GOP revolution, helping shut down the federal government and helping lead the impeachment trial against President Bill Clinton as a House member. When he arrived in the Senate, he helped lead the fight to forbid filibusters on George W. Bush’s judicial nominees and advocated a partial privatization of Social Security.
Yet he has also supported Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, worked with Democrats to curtail terrorist interrogation techniques and supported more tax revenue as part of debt compromises. This comes as South Carolina has become the unofficial capital of the tea party, electing a governor and a House delegation almost entirely from that activist wing. Former Sen. Jim DeMint helped defeat many establishment favorites in recent Senate GOP primaries, and several members of the South Carolina congressional delegation are weighing a challenge to Graham.
Each of the three states — Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia — have tilted so far toward Republicans in the last two decades that Democrats have little to no chance of challenging for those seats in a midterm election.
Then again, senior Democratic strategists on Friday began picturing what the primary process would look like for Republicans, searching for candidates who would appeal to the middle in case an unelectable conservative won the nomination in one or more of those states.