AUGUSTA, Ga. - U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey says he is running for the Senate, making the Marietta Republican the second congressman to enter what promises to be a fierce fight for the rare open seat created by Saxby Chambliss's upcoming retirement.
"Faithfully I have championed our conservative Georgia values, and still yet I feel called to do even more," Gingrey said, flanked by his wife, mother and two brothers.
Gingrey, a 70-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist, made his announcement in Augusta, where he grew up and later attended medical school. He is scheduled to speak in Atlanta later today.
He joins Paul Broun of Athens in the GOP primary field, giving the race two conservative physicians who promise to highlight the party's most conservative wing as Republicans try to defend their advantage in Georgia. U.S. Reps. Tom Price of Roswell and Jack Kingston of Savannah are considering the race, as well.
Rep. John Barrow, meanwhile, could give Democrats their strongest opportunity for a pick-up as the party tries to maintain its Senate majority in 2014, but the Augusta congressman hasn't tipped his hand. Whoever their candidate is, Democrats are banking on a free-for-all among Republicans. "The possibility of primary, and a messy one at that, is now real," said Justin Barasky, spokesman at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington.
Gingrey didn't mention Broun in his remarks, instead taking the safe route by framing his candidacy with customary Republican orthodoxy.
He promised to trim the federal debt, repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, fight a citizenship path for illegal immigrants and continue his opposition to abortion rights. He called Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada "opportunity thieves" guilty of "incompetence and inaction."
But Gingrey offered no specifics on closing the government's annual operating deficit. He called for "entitlement reform," but did not specifically mention Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, the U.S. government's three largest safety net programs that together account for more than 60 percent of federal spending.
He called for "expanding the base" of tax revenues. In GOP parlance, that reference is usually linked to some kind of national consumption tax or income tax changes, such as rolling back the Earned Income Tax Credit, that would make more American households pay federal income tax, in addition to whatever Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes they might pay. Yet Gingrey quickly added his opposition to raising taxes on any American.
Gingrey was elected in 2002 to represent parts of suburban Atlanta and northwest Georgia. He served previously as a state legislator and local school board member.
The Georgia Senate race could highlight the ongoing Republican struggle between anti-establishment, tea party conservatives and the old-guard GOP more identified with the chamber of commerce crowd.
The difficult balance of courting voters across that spectrum is already on display.
Gingrey is generally viewed as a mainstream social and fiscal conservative. But he drew negative attention recently when he defended failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's infamous claim that a woman's body can avoid pregnancy from a "legitimate rape." Gingrey, speaking as an obstetrician, said his former House colleague was "partly right." But the doctor has since backtracked, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his comments were "stupid."
"I made a very awkward attempt to explain the unexplainable," he told the newspaper for a March 11 report.
On Wednesday, Gingrey mentioned his anti-abortion credentials before venturing any thoughts on the nation's finances. And he used his obstetrics career - he says he delivered more than 5,200 babies - as a pillar of his values.
Broun, meanwhile, is an unabashed darling of the right, including many Christian evangelicals who are important in Republican primaries. Broun's congressional ads showed him shooting hunting rifles, and he frequently speaks at churches, including an appearance last year when he called evolutionary theory "lies from the pit of hell."
Unlike Gingrey, Broun hasn't attempted to smooth over his comments. Yet he also opted not to mention social issues at all in his recent announcement and has used most of his public comments since to repeat his promise to fight against "out-of-control government spending" - a mantra he says cuts across party and ideological labels.
Broun has also railed against budget proposals from the Republican leadership, saying they don't go far enough - an uncomfortable position for Gingrey and others to match, given that they don't usually publicly criticize the chamber's GOP leadership.
Gingrey starts his campaign with a solid financial footing. He reported almost $1.9 million balance in his House campaign account to start the year. Broun reported $155,567. Price had nearly $1.6 million, while Kingston was just shy of $1 million.
Chambliss spent $15.7 million during his 2008 re-election year, and Sen. Johnny Isakson spent $7.5 million winning a new term in 2010.