What's Really at Stake in Georgia's Senate Runoff

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(L to R) John Bazemore / AP ; Gregory Smith / AP

Democrat Jim Martin, right, is challenging incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss for Senate

Some political observers think Tuesday's Senate runoff in Georgia is a big deal because a victory by underdog Jim Martin over incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss would keep alive the Democratic Party's dreams of a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority to move its agenda successfully through the Senate. Other experts see the race as a big deal for the opposite reason; Democrats with that majority as well as control of the House and White House could overreach, leading to a conservative backlash in 2010.

But really, there's no such thing as a "filibuster-proof 60-seat majority," even if Martin pulls off an upset and Al Franken wins his recount against Republican Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Joe Lieberman still counts as a Democrat. Senators don't always vote in partisan lockstep; President Barack Obama could succeed in recruiting Republicans on some issues with a 58-seat Democratic majority, and he could find himself stymied by defections on some issues with a 62-seat Democratic majority. In the Senate, even one determined naysayer is capable of grinding the institution to a halt.

And that's why the Martin-Chambliss race actually is a big deal: Chambliss is a textbook Bush-Cheney Republican — and every vote counts. Sixty seats would be better for the Democrats than 59, which would be better for the Democrats than 58. Six years is also a long time. In fact, Georgia is still an extremely conservative state, so if Chambliss can win at a time when the Republican Party is at its lowest ebb, he can probably hold his seat as long as he wants — which would be good news for Bush-style Republicans and bad news for Obama-style Democrats, no matter who is in power.

On the other hand, a Martin surprise in this deep-red state would be a crowning embarrassment for the GOP. It would rival Obama's own victory as a repudiation of the Bush agenda of tax cuts for the rich, pork for the well-connected, belt-tightening for the working poor, drill-baby-drill, strict-construction judges and military adventurism — not to mention the political cynicism that made Chambliss notorious after his ads in 2002 comparing his opponent, triple-amputee Max Cleland, to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Special elections can have quirky results, and pollsters say the runoff will come down to turnout. But all elections come down to turnout, and it's hard to see the path to victory for Martin, a mild-mannered former state legislator and human-resources commissioner who is unusually progressive for a statewide candidate in Georgia. Chambliss narrowly missed an outright majority in November, pulling in 49.8% to Martin's 46.8%, and black Democrats who turned out in record numbers to support Obama didn't vote early for Martin in similar numbers. John McCain and Sarah Palin both returned to Georgia to campaign for Chambliss after winning the state; Obama just taped a radio ad for Martin, who had to rely on surrogates like Ludacris and REM's Michael Stipe to energize his base down the stretch. Chambliss vacuumed money from big donors as well as the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association; Martin did better with small donors and attracted a swarm of labor-union volunteers, but he's clearly swimming upstream.

That's because Chambliss and Martin are both running fairly typical Republican and Democratic campaigns in a strongly Republican state. Chambliss was first elected to Congress in 1994, and his campaign sounds a lot like the template Republicans used to seize Capitol Hill that year, except for the emphasis on term limits and changing Washington. He's portrayed Martin as a squishy Big Government liberal who supports Obama, higher taxes, socialized medicine and pro-abortion judges who legislate from the bench, but opposes the Second Amendment, prayer in schools, offshore drilling and a bill to make English the official language of Georgia. Martin is borrowing more from the Obama template of 2008, declaring himself the candidate of the middle class, bashing Chambliss for voting to privatize Social Security while opposing health insurance for children, prescription drugs for seniors, the GI bill for veterans and Democratic efforts to end subsidies for Big Oil. "He'll do everything he can in the Senate to help me change Washington and get America moving again," Obama said in the ad he cut for Martin.

But Obama got only 47% of the vote in Georgia, which is not a bellwether state. And so national fatigue with Bush will not necessarily translate into Georgia fatigue with Chambliss, who is in many ways nearly a parody of a Bush-Cheney Republican. He has supported the Administration on just about everything but its efforts to rein in outrageous farm subsidies. He is so tight with the sugar industry that he attacked a whistleblower who reported safety problems after an explosion at a Georgia mill killed 14 people. He has been an ardent supporter of sending U.S. troops into harm's way even though he avoided serving in Vietnam through student deferments, as well as because of an allegedly bum knee that hasn't hampered his reputation as one of the best golfers in Congress. On a recent appearance on Fox News, he warned that if he isn't re-elected, "you're going to see an economic stimulus like you won't believe." As if that would be a bad thing!

Like many Republicans in Washington, Chambliss has trumpeted the idea that the GOP's electoral difficulties are the result of insufficient conservatism and can be reversed only with a stronger defense of traditional values and more consistent opposition to government spending. But it's not as if Republicans in Washington have failed to defend traditional values; they got two conservative Justices on the Supreme Court, passed all kinds of laws restricting abortion and stem-cell research and practically shut down the government to try to save Terri Schiavo. And while it is true that Republicans spent taxpayer dollars like drunken sailors when they controlled all three branches of government — Chambliss was not a notable abstainer — there is little evidence that Americans soured on the GOP because of its profligacy. They don't seem to be crying out for austerity and deregulation. McCain is one of the most principled spending hawks in the GOP; how did he and his crusade against earmarks do?

That's one more reason today's runoff is a big deal. A Chambliss victory would not send much of a message to the nation; it would just confirm the obvious fact that Georgia is more conservative than the nation. But it could reinforce the dangerous message that recent electoral results have been sending to Republicans. GOP moderates like Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays and GOP pragmatists like North Carolina gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory keep losing, while most Republican survivors have been conservatives from conservative districts and conservative states. So the party keeps looking more like Chambliss and moving further in his direction — even more white, even more to the right, even more eager to fight.

It's a defensible electoral strategy — if you're trying to win elections in the Deep South. But the rest of the country isn't likely to embrace Chambliss any more than it has embraced Bush.

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