For up and coming politicians, the retirement of veteran U.S. Saxby Chambliss spells opportunity, but for farmers it could mean the loss of a key voice in agricultural legislation.
Chambliss, 69, a Republican from Moultrie, announced Friday that he would not be seeking a third term, leading to speculation that the field of those aspiring to replace him could be crowded. His current term expires in 2014.
There has been grumbling in recent weeks among tea party conservatives that Chambliss’ reaching across the aisle could lead to a conservative primary challenger.
In a written statement Friday, Chambliss dismissed the notion that his decision was based on calculations of a primary challenger and said he would have won re-election if he had decided to run.
“Instead, this is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress, especially on issues that are the foundation of our nation’s economic health.
“The debt-ceiling debacle of 2011 and the recent fiscal-cliff vote showed Congress at its worst and, sadly, I don’t see the legislative gridlock and partisan posturing improving anytime soon.”
The impact of Chambliss’ departure could be felt most among the farming and rural communities that Chambliss served particularly well, said Hayden Willis, a Moultrie attorney who chairs the Colquitt County Republican Party and at one time worked for Chambliss in Washington.
“You had somebody who could stand up for agriculture,” Willis said. “He knew agriculture inside and out. I think that’s going to be the biggest loss. Because of his rural roots he worked for all of Georgia’s rural communities.”
The loss will be devastating both in terms of Chambliss’ leadership on farm legislation and his work to address the nation’s debt, Leary farmer Jimmy Webb said.
“Saxby was a huge asset to us on the Senate Ag. Committee,” he said. “He was really very instrumental in the last farm bill, and I’m sure he will keep working and be instrumental in drafting a new farm bill.”
Webb, a former Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition farmer of the year, said that Chambliss was key in relating to Midwestern-state legislators the differences between farming there and in the Southeast.
“It’s a blow to not just Georgia farmers but farmers across the cotton belt because he understood Southern agriculture,” he said.
Willis said that Chambliss was a great representative for the entire state, but his rural roots made him especially a voice for south Georgia and rural communities throughout the state.
His retirement sets up an interesting scenario, said Willis, who worked Chambliss’ first Senate campaign in 2002. Several of the candidates who have been mentioned hail from Atlanta area and northern part of the state.
Possible candidates include U.S. Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Tom Price. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue and former Secretary of State Karen Handel are also viewed as potential contenders. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston also may be considering a bid.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who lines up to run,” Willis said. “There’s a chance we won’t have a voice from south Georgia to succeed Saxby Chambliss in that seat.”
Having a hometown senator is definitely a positive, said Marion Hay, chairman of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority and a former county administrator. High-ranking politicians are not looking to be seen as catering to a particular region, but that does not mean they are not influential.
“I don’t know anything directly that he’s done as a U.S. senator,” Hay said. “I’m sure behind the scenes he’s helped the county in some areas.”
Chambliss has advocated for funds for the four-laning of Georgia Highway 133 from Albany to Valdosta and helped secure funding for surveying and right-of-way acquisition for a portion of the route.
At one time Georgia had a number of influential and long-serving members of Congress, but the days of a senator building the clout that former U.S. Sens. Sam Nunn and Herman Talmadge amassed seems to be a thing of the past, Hay said.
“Tenure used to mean a lot,” he said. “I don’t know if it does any more.”
The success of Nunn and former Georgia House Majority Leader Larry Walker would seem to indicate politicians from outside Atlanta can win statewide elections and assume leadership positions, Hay said.
“It’s still possible to get somebody from south Georgia elected to the Senate,” he said.
“I hate to hear old Saxby is hanging it up. It’s that behind-the-scenes work that you don’t miss it until it’s gone.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.