Politics & Government

Both parties have big stakes in Georgia Senate runoff

MACON, Ga. — The fight for Georgia's U.S. Senate seat is a struggle for much more. For Democrats, the Tuesday runoff could give them their 59th seat in the next Senate. And if Democrat Al Franken beats GOP incumbent Norm Coleman in Minnesota's recount, which will continue into December, Democrats would reach the magic number of 60 Senate seats — the number required under Senate rules to shut off debate and force a vote.

Republicans have big stakes in Georgia, too. A win by incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who's a slight favorite, would be an important confidence booster after the shellacking the party took Nov. 4. It also would give the GOP new grounds for arguing that President-elect Barack Obama is not invincible.

The battle for Georgia is being waged on two levels: A fierce grassroots struggle to get supporters to the polls, and a national contest featuring political celebrities and big money.

The two forces often converge, as when former President Bill Clinton came to campaign Nov. 19 for Democrat Jim Martin. Before Clinton spoke, supporters were asked to take out their cell phones and call or text five friends and urge them to vote Democratic.

The cavalcade of stars continues Monday, as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, arguably the country's foremost conservative Republican crowd-pleaser, plans four rallies across the state.

All this came about because Chambliss fell just short of the majority needed to win Nov. 4. He was wounded by Libertarian Allen Buckley, who among other things protested Chambliss' October vote for the $700 billion financial rescue plan, a plan many conservatives found intrusive and excessive. Buckley pulled 3.4 percent of the vote.

Most folks here think Republicans will come home to Chambliss this time, feeling they sent him a message on Nov. 4 and want to give the GOP a boost now.

"Chambliss has been campaigning on national issues," said political analyst Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races. He's been painting Martin, a former state legislator and state Department of Human Resources commissioner, as a liberal eager to help Obama tax, spend, appoint permissive judges, fund abortions and take away guns.

Martin, said State Rep. Chuck Sims, a Republican from Ambrose in south Georgia, has little sense of what people in rural areas and small towns think. "He wouldn't know a watermelon from a peanut," Sims said.

Martin's problems were evident in Bibb County, a Democratic stronghold in middle Georgia that went solidly for Martin and Obama in the general election. In many cases, voters there said, the larger political picture is a huge factor as they make their choice.

"I'm not really voting for anybody — I'm voting against Martin and Obama," said Mike Wolff, 56, of Macon.

Sure, he said, Chambliss has on occasion helped out with issues affecting Robins Air Force Base, where Wolff works. But the Republicans have also been spending money "like drunken sailors" over the past eight years, he said.

What pushed Wolff to Chambliss was concern about giving Democrats a 60th seat. No party should have that kind of power, he said; were the parties' positions reversed, he'd back Martin.

The same unease motivated Travis McCallum, 41, a firefighter.

"I'm very concerned about Democrats having a supermajority in the Senate, and I'm trying to prevent that," he said. "There need to be some checks."

Democrats know that the key to winning is re-creating the excitement supporters felt during the Obama campaign, but that's going to be difficult.

"We need to make the connection between Jim Martin and Barack Obama, and remind people that (Obama) was given a mandate that says we must be more inclusive," said State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, a Democrat from suburban Atlanta.

The message resonates with Murdell Sands, 68, of Macon, who voted early for Martin.

"I figure Mr. Obama's gonna need all the support he can get, and I was very happy to do that," she said. "We all need to get behind the president-elect and help any way we can."

Darlene Herring, 44, of Macon, saw the runoff as one more chapter in the Obama-Democratic crusade to change government.

"Until the race is complete," she said, "we haven't done what we need to do."

But the absence of Obama in person or on the ballot makes that argument a harder sell.

"There was so much emphasis on Obama, Obama, Obama during the campaign. There's got to be more effort to make people understand what's at stake," said State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, a Democrat from Riverdale, a predominantly African-American Atlanta suburb.

Tom Baxter, editor of the Southern Political Report in Atlanta, thought that the same grassroots push that helped Obama get 47 percent of the Georgia vote could still boost Martin.

"There are still legions of Obama staffers, and they have a much more sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation than Democrats have had here before," said Baxter.

Obama field operatives who were dispatched to Georgia shortly after Nov. 4 have boosted Martin's presence on the ground.

Chambliss spokeswoman Michelle Grasso countered that the senator's base of support is "excited and energetic."

Perhaps most important, analysts said, is this statistic: About 30 percent of the statewide Georgia vote Nov. 4 was African-American, and they voted for Obama, 98 percent to 2 percent. They backed Martin, 93 percent to 4 percent.

In early voting last week, black turnout was way down. That's why, Duffy found, "a whole lot is going Chambliss' way here."

(Lightman reported from Washington. Barnwell reports for The Telegraph in Macon, Ga.)


Chambliss' campaign web site

Martin's campaign web site


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