Keep on those party hats, Georgia. You're about to decide whether there will be a cherry on top of Barack Obama's electoral sundae.
The Nov. 4 totals in the race for Georgia's U.S. Senate seat left Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss literally a fraction below the necessary 50 percent-plus one in his race against Democratic nominee Jim Martin. As ballots were still being counted – and talk of recounts abounded – both candidates said they weren't waiting for the last vote to be tallied. The runoff, they said, had begun.
Senate races in Alaska and Minnesota are stuck in counts and recounts, but those states – unlike Georgia – don't require runoffs when no candidate wins a majority. That means, on Dec. 2, Georgia will host the election season's last significant contest.
"[Georgia] now becomes ground zero of the American political scene," says Rusty Paul, a former state GOP head who now manages campaigns. "I expect that people all over the country will come rolling into Georgia to change people's minds."
The invasion of surrogates and operatives already is under way. John McCain has agreed to campaign for Chambliss. An invitation also has gone out to former GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin.
The president-elect himself hasn't yet scheduled any Georgia appearances on behalf of Martin, but he could do a variety of things to help his fellow Democrat, ranging from cutting a radio ad asking black voters to come back to the polls, to a full-fledged campaign swing. Former Obama campaign staffers already are signing up to come to Georgia and help with Martin's effort.
After a historic election with record turnout, the runoff will hinge on coaxing voters – many of whom cast their first-ever ballots – back to the polls.
"The challenge for Democrats in this runoff will be, can you mobilize voters who were very excited about Barack Obama when Barack Obama's not on the ticket?" says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. "If Obama came down here, gave a speech or two, gave a rally or two for Jim Martin, would that suffice for people to come back out?"
Martin's campaign wasted no time in grabbing Obama's coattails. On Friday, it released an ad prominently featuring the president-elect, accompanied by the message that Martin would pursue Obama's initiatives if voters send him to Washington.
"A lot of people may have been reluctant to get involved prior to the election," says Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, referring to Chambliss' previous untouchable status as a well-financed incumbent in a scarlet state. "But now that they've seen this type of support, I think we'll see an influx of people visiting the state. Georgia needs to have that type of representation."
Martin still faces an uphill battle. Runoffs historically haven't been a Democratic strong suit in Georgia, because voters with a higher socioeconomic status typically come back to the polls. That demographic is heavily Republican.
"Republicans recently have done a better job of get out the vote [efforts] – identifying your voters, staying in contact, and getting them to the polls," Bullock says. "But Democrats did a great job this year."
Another issue is money. Both campaigns are tightlipped about the cash on hand, and their most recent financial disclosures show Martin and Chambliss with $564,596 and $836,008, respectively. It's difficult to say how much of that is left, however, or how much the two candidates have raised since the election. Now that Chambliss' seat is the only spot in the country still up for grabs, both parties' campaign committees are likely to throw plenty of resources into Georgia. According to the Senate campaign committees' Oct. 15 disclosures, Republicans have $9.8 million to spend compared to the Democrats' $8.5 million.
"This is the only game in town," Bullock says. "So if you're a Republican or Democratic organization, you might as well clean out the vault and pour it in here. There's no place else. Up until this point [the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] had to decide 'Do we spend the money in Georgia or North Carolina or does it go to Georgia or Minnesota?' [They] don't have to worry about that anymore."
Chambliss ended up in this spot partly due to an October vote for the $700-billion Wall Street aid package. Observers surmise that many free-market conservatives couldn't stomach a vote for the senator, and instead backed Libertarian Allen Buckley. With 3.4 percent, Buckley won 100,000 more votes than Libertarian presidential nominee Bob Barr.
"My hunch would be that if you really like Buckley, you're probably going to sit this out," Bullock says. "Now, if you're a Republican identifier who wanted to send Saxby a message, you may think, 'OK, I think he's got the message,' and you come back and vote for him this time. Especially if you're concerned about Democratic strength in D.C. You think, 'Yeah, Saxby's got his problems, his warts and all, but I'm gonna support him and get as many Republicans in Congress' so you can slow down [the Democrats] as they try to adopt the various forms of changes."
Paul, who laughingly says he hopes conservatives don't hold a grudge, agrees with Bullock: "For those of us on the conservative side of the ledger, we've lost control of the Senate. But every vote matters at this point. And if you want to have any kind of check or balance against an extreme Democratic agenda in Washington, you doggone well better have as many votes in the Senate as you possibly can have."
Martin – who seemed infused with the gusto of a populist Democrat from days of old – said last Wednesday that he'll continue to focus on Chambliss' role in the economy and his record in Congress.
In the end, however, the race remains what it always was: a referendum on Chambliss' performance. If Martin can effectively hammer away at the incumbent's Senate record – as the late Paul Coverdell did in a 1992 runoff against then-Sen. Wyche Fowler – the Democrat stands a fighting chance.
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