ATLANTA — For a sitting Republican senator from a solidly red state, Saxby Chambliss has a lot of people talking about taking his job.
Political speculation peaked this month when Rob Simms, a political consultant for former GOP gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel, told The Weekly Standard that Handel was considering running. When asked whether he might run, U.S. Rep. Tom Price told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it was "completely premature" to consider it. He did not rule it out. On Tuesday, conservative talk show host and blogger Erick Erickson said on the air that he was thinking about running.
"A lot of people listen to me — how many of them would vote for me? Eh, we'll see — maybe," Erickson said.
A combination of factors has encouraged some Republicans to openly weigh a challenge. Chambliss has long faced criticism from tea party activists and other hardcore conservatives who dislike his role on the bipartisan Gang of Six, which backed a plan to reduce deficits by changing entitlement programs, make spending cuts and raising tax revenue.
Then Chambliss got into a spat with anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, saying that he cared "more about this country" than an anti-tax pledge he signed years ago. Other Republican leaders made similar comments this week as Washington wrestles with how to avoid the fiscal cliff.
"I don't think it's the taxes," said Debbie Dooley, a Chambliss critic and co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party. "It's based on that people want a fighter, they don't want someone to acquiesce to the left."
On Wednesday, the 69-year-old Chambliss called state Republican Party chairwoman Sue Everhart to make clear he is running for re-election in 2014. Chambliss has been in Washington for 18 years, having served four terms in the U.S. House before unseating Democratic Sen. Max Cleland in 2002.
"No one has come to him ... and said they are running for his job," Everhart said, describing the phone call with Chambliss. "It's total rumor and they're coming from everywhere. It's total rumor and no one talked to him seriously, sat down and said, 'I'm going to run for your job.'"
Chambliss' longtime political consultant, Tom Perdue, said several members of Congress have said in the last few months that they would run for Chambliss' seat if he did not seek re-election. And others indicated they might challenge the incumbent in a primary. Still others, Perdue said, are floating their names as a way of raising campaign cash and don't intend to mount a real challenge.
Perdue faulted those who criticize Chambliss for working with Democrats.
"Now all of the sudden you've got some people, which is certainly their right — they do not think he should be working with Democrats," Perdue said. "Well, it's kind of hard to get anything done in Congress if both parties don't work together."
Chambliss' fiscal philosophy is under scrutiny as President Barack Obama, a Democrat, negotiates with Republican lawmakers to determine whether the government will avoid a year-end package of tax increases and spending cuts that some fear could throw the economy into recession. In an interview last week, Chambliss said fixing the country's financial issues could mean violating an anti-tax pledge he signed years ago and added that Norquist's strategy would drive the country into more debt.
"It's valid now but times have changed significantly and I care more about this country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," Chambliss told WMAZ-TV.
A few days later, Chambliss put a statement on his Web site touting his "conservative principles" and saying he was not in favor of a tax increase. But he did say that he would consider changes that raised tax revenue if they were accompanied by changes to entitlement programs that reduce spending.
Appearing on CNN's "Situation Room" on Wednesday evening, Erickson said he's always dismissed calls that he should run for the U.S. Senate but added that he's been giving it more consideration as people have called him and "actually are throwing out dollar signs in what they could raise." He said he decided to "actually treat this a little more seriously than I have been."
"I think it's more a barometer of angst with Saxby Chambliss than anything that there are people calling me wanting to run," he said. "My wife is firmly in the 'I will bury you in the back yard if you run' camp. The odds are against it. But it's certainly something to look at."
The RedState.com editor then launched into an attack on "people who call themselves conservatives" but who don't rein in spending. He noted that Chambliss has been an enthusiastic supporter of agricultural subsidies and defense spending, for example.
"If Republicans are going to return to their roots, and try to be fiscally responsible, they need to stop sending guys to Washington who are OK with the spending as long as they're not raising taxes or in Saxby's case pledging to not raise taxes and saying, 'Maybe I will,'" Erickson said.