Georgia’s US Senate runoff has broader political importance

The post-election vote could tighten Democrats’ grip on Capitol Hill while giving GOP stars a chance to shine.

John Amis/AP
Incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia (r.) gave a speech for supporters during a Republican election rally on Nov. 15. Mr. Chambliss will face Democratic challenger Jim Martin in a Dec. 2 runoff election.

The last voters in the historic 2008 election headed back to the polls in Georgia on Tuesday, ready to decide the extent of the Democrats’ grip on Washington and give Republican standard-bearers clues as to how to operate as outsiders.

“I don’t mind voting again,” says Democrat James Cato, an Atlanta travel agent, braving a brisk morning to file an early vote for the Dec. 2 runoff between Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin. “I tend to come out when I feel my vote is really going to count.”

The Senate runoff between two former University of Georgia fraternity brothers is the first election after Barack Obama won the presidency. It’s become increasingly important as Democrats won the Alaska recount this week, putting them within two seats of gaining a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. That makes the Georgia runoff the last seat to be decided by voters as the disputed Minnesota race now heads to a recount.

As the GOP’s current panoply of stars – Gov. Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee – prepare to stump for Mr. Chambliss, the Georgia runoff has become a stage for potential Republican national candidates to find their footing, hone their messages, and begin formulating the answer to a vexing question: How to marshal the vaunted independent vote and rebuild the party from what Duke University political scientist Michael Munger calls “the smoking ruins.”

GOP stars play to larger audience

“This is the first quick election after the Obama victory,” says Mr. Munger. “So when we see these people coming in and trying out messages ... they’re trying out messages for a larger stage.”

To be sure, that stage is looking dusty, even in this Republican shoo-in state. “The really bad thing for Republicans is that there’s any runoff at all – this was thought to be a completely safe seat,” says David Rohde, also a Duke election expert. “For the Republican party and for the way each party can see itself in the national context, it has a lot of implications.”

It’s personal between Chambliss and Mr. Martin, who have run a series of highly negative ads attacking each other’s characters and associations.

Chambliss, who was first swept into office as part of the Republican revolution in 1994, is having an image crisis of his own making – testing even Republicans’ patience. At a recent Senate hearing, he defended corporations by berating a safety whistle-blower. Many conservative Georgians are upset about Chambliss’s support for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

“A major part of the advertising from [Chambliss] is that this [runoff] is now the front line for the battle of ideological control of the nation,” says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. “So if you’re a conservative and worried about what the Democrats may do with the White House and [Congress], here’s where you could make a difference.”

Martin faces his own challenges.

Chambliss seems to be winning points by drawing Martin into a debate over a “fair tax” proposal that shows some promise as a future Republican drawing card.

Still, says Munger, “The Republicans are demoralized, it’s hard to get partisans out, and Democrats could win by a ton of votes.” Thus, the parade of stars on behalf of Chambliss.

Last week, Zell Miller, the former Democratic senator who blasted John Kerry at the 2004 Republican convention, stumped for Chambliss. “I don’t like this ‘spread the wealth,’” Mr. Miller told a raucous partisan crowd. “To steal from Peter to pay Paul, even if it gets Paul to vote for you, is wrong, wrong, wrong.”

John McCain, Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Romney split the Republican ticket by thirds in the Georgia primary, with Huckabee eking out the win. Former Arkansas governor and pastor Huckabee now has a show on Fox News; Romney is the economic strategist and corporate turnaround artist; and Ms. Palin, who had a rough entry into national politics, can also find a stage in Georgia unshackled from McCain.

Party unity is being tested

They all appeal to various strands of the fractured GOP coalition. But the question, especially in light of the primary results, is whether one of them can unite the GOP.

They’re likely to test their chances in Georgia, says Napp Nazworth, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia. Huckabee’s message is, “I’m conservative, but I’m not angry about it,” says Mr. Nazworth. For Palin, he says, “it depends on her being able to reinvent herself as someone who can appeal beyond the base.”

For their part, Democrats have been begging Mr. Obama to come, but he has so far demurred. But Bill Clinton was scheduled to speak at Clark Atlanta University on Wednesday, providing a foil to the Republican heavyweights.

Victor Davis Hanson, a political commentator and classics professor at the University of California, Fresno, says the runoff here will give clues as to how deep the Republican dilemma really runs, and who might be best to carry the GOP standard forward.

“For now,” Mr. Hanson writes in an e-mail, “Republicans can’t agree whether (1) much needs changing ideology-wise ... since many conservative ballot measures passed, or (2) Democratic success ... proves that the [Republican] base and its ideas are hopelessly unappealing to growing numbers of youth, minorities, and women, or (3) the conservative message is fine but needs to be repackaged for the times with better spokespeople.”

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