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Saxby Chambliss: Georgia GOP will weather Donald Trump divide

WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said he doesn't expect infighting over Donald Trump to do any long-lasting damage to the Georgia GOP despite the searing divisions currently on display in the Peach State.

The two-term Republican senator, who retired from Congress 16 months ago after two decades in Washington, said the prospect of defeating the Democratic nominee in the general election will help mend fences.

“I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to continue to argue, we’re going to continue to fight within the party, but at the end of the day there’s going to be a primary focus on defeating the Democratic nominee for president,” Chambliss said Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “There is a rallying point there that I think people will circle the wagons on.”

Discord over Trump's candidacy has boiled over in recent Republican conventions across the state. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's forces largely outmaneuvered Trump’s in district meetings to select delegates for the GOP convention despite the real estate mogul's decisive victory in Georgia’s March 1 primary, prompting anger from the billionaire's backers.

Chambliss said he identifies with the anti-Washington frustration that’s dominated the presidential rhetoric this cycle. He said it will likely require Georgia’s current batch of GOP lawmakers, several of whom are facing multiple primary challengers next month because of votes cast in Congress, to take more time to explain their work on Capitol Hill.

“The fact that people have the right to criticize openly and they have the right to get out there and run, that’s what makes our system work so well. It’s true that it has made it more difficult when people are doing what they need to do … which is voting for controversial legislation, and it puts a bigger burden on them to have to go back home and explain it,” he said.

More than the party tearing itself apart, Chambliss said he’s concerned about this political climate producing congressional candidates who would feel compelled to vote against every piece of legislation.

“That is a real danger and I worry about that. The system is not necessarily broken but it’s more difficult to operate in the political atmosphere here, do your job and expect to go back home and not be criticized,” Chambliss said. “It’s just going to happen more and more. Until we have a system where we have more competitive congressional districts, that’s going to be the case.”

After leaving Congress at the end of 2014, Chambliss signed on as a partner at the Atlanta branch of the law firm DLA Piper. He continues to work on cybersecurity issues, an expertise he honed as the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Chambliss said he still has his top secret security clearance. He’s a member of the CIA director’s advisory board and is also teaching a class at the University of Georgia’s law school.

Whether he misses his old gig in Washington is a more complicated question.

“I miss my friends (in D.C.). I miss being involved in the decisions being made in the back rooms,” Chambliss said. “But there weren’t many of those, the development of legislation, taking place over the last couple of years that I was here. I’m happy to be away from the day-to-day head-butting.”

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.