WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Price has said he won't announce until May whether he will seek to succeed Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss — but Price took a necessary step toward such a bid last Friday.
During a trip to the state Capitol in Atlanta, Price met with Gov. Nathan Deal's chief of staff, Chris Riley, and tried to smooth over a years-long rift between the two camps.
When Deal ran for governor in 2010, Price endorsed him — but, when the polls began to look bad, Price switched to support another candidate, Karen Handel. When Deal came back and won, he didn't try to hide his disdain for Price.
Now, all over the state, Price told Riley, people are asking Price about the governor not liking him. Potential donors are asking, too.
"Can you tell them that I came by?" Price asked, according to an aide familiar with the meeting. Riley said he would.
In Georgia politics, the Deal-Price feud is the stuff of legend — and, suddenly, it could play prominently in Price's nascent interest in running for the U.S. Senate.
Rumors are already circulating in Georgia's political sphere about whether Deal might try to compromise Price's access to some powerful state donors, or otherwise inject himself into the Republican primary.
"(Deal) was telling his donors that, if they were to get in behind Price, they would no longer have any face time with the governor," a House Republican aide said, repeating one such rumor. Later, the same aide spoke with other Georgians, who said the opposite.
The governor might not need to publicly strong-arm Price out of the race. In Georgia, the governor makes appointments to a lengthy list of boards, councils and commissions — and, thus, Deal has plenty of allies. Deal is also up for reelection in 2014, and an intervention in a Senate race could complicate matters.
Price is aware of the challenges his relationship with Deal creates at home.
When Price discussed a bid for Senate with Rep. Austin Scott, a fellow Georgian, Scott put the matter bluntly.
"Tom, everybody in south Georgia hates you because you were going to run against Saxby (in a primary), and everybody in north Georgia hates you because of what you did to the governor," Scott joked, according to an aide with knowledge of the conversation.
Even in a vacuum, the Republican primary will likely be a competitive one: Price would face Rep. Paul Broun, and Reps. Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey are also weighing bids.
But, for Price, such a four-way race is preferable to the alternative: Chambliss vacating office early, leaving Deal the power to appoint his successor — almost certainly not Price.
Recently, when Betty Price crossed paths with Chambliss's wife, Julianne, in Washington, Betty Price asked for Julianne Chambliss's assurance that her husband would not leave the Senate early.
"Saxby's going to finish his term," Julianne Chambliss responded, according to a source familiar with the discussion. Then, she added icily, "We keep our word."