MOST WANTED LIST
Beyond Broun, the lineup of troublemakers stalking Senate races is a mix of new and familiar names. In Alaska, 2010 Republican nominee Joe Miller is back for another go-round in a three-man race. Other than losing to Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in effort, his campaign was most memorable for having handcuffed a local reporter. Another 2010 retread, former Colorado GOP nominee Ken Buck, once compared homosexuality to alcoholism.
Bob Vander Plaats wasn't a Senate contender in 2010, but he is well-known to anyone familiar with Iowa politics and he's a magnet for controversy. The prominent social conservative leader, who nearly won the party's 2010 gubernatorial nomination, has called homosexuality a "public health risk." Vander Plaats is mulling a campaign in a primary that already features a handful of candidates.
Mark Harris is also a social conservative, but he's far less well-known nationally than his Iowa counterpart. In North Carolina, the Baptist pastor spearheaded the 2012 adoption of a constitutional ban on gay marriage. His nomination would beget a renewed debate over an issue the national party can't backpedal from fast enough.
And if Broun weren't enough, the Georgia GOP field has another potentially combustible candidate: Rep. Phil Gingrey. Earlier this year, Gingrey defended Akin's comment about rape, then apologized.
Other candidates might yet emerge; Republican operatives like to point out that although Akin was never the establishment favorite, few considered him an enormous liability. Mostly, he was just known as a soft-spoken politician with an unremarkable legislative record. But for now, these are the ones on the GOP's early-watch list.
None of them, according to Republicans, amount to half the threat posed by Broun. They're either seen as not credible enough to win the nomination (Gingrey and, especially, Miller), unlikely to enter at all (Vander Plaats), less combustible than their résumé would suggest (Harris), or running in a state that Republicans have already written off (Buck). "From a Republican standpoint, Paul Broun is the only one we're really worried about," said a GOP strategist tracking the 2014 Senate races, granted anonymity in order to speak candidly about the political landscape.
Broun isn't only the caricature of a controversy-courting politician. He actually has the pedigree of a top-flight politician — his father, Paul Broun Sr., was a longtime Democratic state senator from Athens, Ga., and a friend to former President Carter. A doctor and a Marine, the younger Broun was deployed to Afghanistan last year as a Navy reservist.
In person, Broun carries on with voters like an old master of retail politics. At the Women's Federation, he hugged and clasped the hands of all those who approached him, greeting them with his Georgia-inflected baritone and a warm smile. And regardless of what he's said in the past, Broun appears intent on taking a more conventional line now. The most radical notes in his stump speech call for abolishing the Education Department and the Environmental Protection Agency — not exactly mainstream thinking, but hardly extreme positions within the Republican Party anymore.