With Chambliss, Republicans win one in the South

GOP’s conservative base in Georgia prevents a Democratic filibuster-proof majority in the US Senate.

By , Staff writer

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    Reelected: Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss at an election-night party Tuesday in Atlanta. He defeated Democrat Jim Martin in a runoff.
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Georgia voters reelected an unpopular Gingrich-era Republican senator here on Tuesday, dashing Democratic hopes of a filibuster-proof majority in the United States Senate and giving a small moral victory to Southern conservatives a month after losing a seismic presidential election.

In the final vote of the 2008 election season, Saxby Chambliss beat his college fraternity brother, Jim Martin, by a handy 57 to 43 percent in a race that involved an invigorated Republican ground machine, millions of dollars pouring in from out of state, and candidates abandoning constructive campaigning to bash each other with nasty TV ads.

While the state of the US economy makes it tough to draw broad political conclusions, Senator Chambliss’ victory showed many Republicans that the party is not as down and out as many have predicted and that the Democrats, despite their successes in the November election, can still be vulnerable.

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“The emerging story, particularly after Tuesday, is you’re going to see the reemergence of a very muscular Republican ground game,” says political consultant Ralph Reed of Atlanta.
The stakes here were high, both for measuring the electorate’s druthers and for gleaning insight into the possibilities for the nine Southern Senate seats that are expected to be contested in the 2010 midterm elections.

The Chambliss victory is “kind of a status quo outcome,” says political scientist Randall Strahan at Emory University in Atlanta. “The extraordinary outcome would have been if a Democratic candidate were to win the seat, which would have suggested that a political tide that has been running in the South for a long time has really reversed direction.”

In the end, Mr. Martin failed to energize those who had voted for Barack Obama, while Republicans overcame voter anger against Chambliss for voting for the $700 financial bailout bill, by deploying a massive, star-studded ground game. Business groups and national Republican organizations spent $4.2 million in Georgia in the past four weeks, nearly twice as much as Democrats spent on Martin.

“What this is saying is that the Nov. 4 election scared the base,” says Keith Stone, a utility subcontractor in rural Nashville, Ga. “We saw Obama get elected, and we were a hair away from having another Obama in Jim Martin. This was a base vote.”

Indeed, the national story line of a referendum on a potential Democratic supermajority trickled down into Georgia, where voters on both sides came out to try to make a difference in Washington.

Chambliss’s supporters presented him as a “fire wall” against a filibuster-proof Senate, while Martin promised he’d be a “bridge” to help President-elect Obama achieve his promised overhaul of national tax and defense policies. In the end, turnout was moderate.

African-American turnout dropped from 30 percent of all voters in the general election to 23 percent. Republicans reasserted themselves in the suburbs.

Chambliss faced not only an Obama head wind, but his own record. Dissatisfaction was so intense that many Republicans who came out to vote for John McCain in the general election left the Chambliss box unchecked, forcing the runoff.

“Some people did not vote for Chambliss, period,” says Karen Hewitt, Republican Party chairwoman in Bryan County, the home of Fort Stewart and the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. “And now, in all honesty, I’ve heard from quite a few individuals who say they are voting for him only because of needing the Republican side [in the Senate].”

While the Republicans flew stars Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Mitt Romney into the state, the biggest Democrat of them all – Mr. Obama – did not come, leaving Martin to campaign with hip-hop artist Ludacris in the last days. In 1992, newly elected Bill Clinton campaigned in a similar runoff situation in Georgia and helped the Democrat win. The former president also campaigned for Martin last month.

Mr. Strahan at Emory University explains that the rough-and-tumble Georgia runoff could have tarnished Obama’s promise of postpartisanship. If Obama had appeared and Martin still lost – which was likely – the political impact could have been even more dramatic.

“If this is framed as kind of a referendum of the country from here on out, Democrats don’t want that interpreted as the first kind of negative response to the president-elect,” says Strahan.

While the direction of the Republican Party is still very much up in the air, Chambliss’s dramatic victory showed, most of all, that there’s still political capital for conservatives in the South, and perhaps beyond.

“Southern whites had a few years ago the feeling they were part of the nation’s governing coalition, and now they see that drifting away,” says Hastings Wyman, a correspondent with the Southern Political Report. “This election is part of getting back in the game.”

In Minnesota, meanwhile, the neck-and-neck recount – expected to be completed Friday – has incumbent US Sen. Norm Coleman ahead of Democratic challenger Al Franken by just a few hundred votes out of nearly 3 million cast. Disputed ballots will still have to be sorted out.

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