By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
ATLANTA, Dec. 2 -- Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) easily won reelection Tuesday night, trouncing his Democratic challenger in a runoff and thereby ensuring that the GOP will retain the ability to filibuster bills in the Senate.
With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Chambliss held 58 percent of the vote to Jim Martin's 42 percent.
The result prevents Democrats from controlling the 60 seats in the Senate needed to override Republican filibuster efforts. Democrats have 56 seats, while two independents typically caucus with them. Republicans now have 41 seats and hope to hold one more, in Minnesota, where a recount between Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken remains to be decided.
Chambliss was introduced at his victory party Tuesday night by Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. "Mike" Duncan as "Mr. 41," and he declared that Republicans "now have the momentum" after his victory.
"You have delivered a message that a balance of government in Washington is necessary," a clearly relieved Chambliss told an Atlanta ballroom filled with several hundred supporters.
Protecting the threat of the filibuster was a key theme of Republicans in the Georgia race, but it is not clear whether party leaders will actually try to use it to slow Democratic initiatives. The Senate GOP caucus includes more liberal members, such as Maine's Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, and Collins said during her election race this year that she agreed with some of President-elect Barack Obama's proposals on health care and other issues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has said that holding 41 seats is essential for forcing Democrats to reach compromises, not for blocking legislation. GOP senators emphasized that point in a letter they sent last month to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).
Yet McConnell has said Republicans will sharply oppose one measure backed by Obama and most Democrats: requiring businesses to recognize labor unions if a majority of employees fill out cards supporting unionization, rather than the current requirement for a secret ballot in such votes. Labor unions back the provision, while many business groups oppose it.
"It's unacceptable. It's overwhelmingly unpopular," McConnell said recently. "That is the kind of thing that they ought not to pursue. And if they do pursue, it ought to be defeated."
Chambliss defeated Martin on Election Day, too, but his 49.8 percent of the vote then fell just short of the 50 percent needed under state law to avoid a runoff. Martin won 47 percent, while Libertarian Allen Buckley took 3 percent.
The double-digit margin by which Chambliss won this time suggested that Obama's ballyhooed turnout operation could not fire up voters without the Democratic standard-bearer atop the ticket. Obama came within five percentage points of defeating his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), in this conservative state lost by Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) by 17 points in 2004.
Martin appeared to suffer from a lower turnout among African Americans. Fewer than a quarter of people who cast ballots early in the runoff were black, compared with more than a third in the November vote. Black voters overwhelmingly favored Obama and Martin.
Underscoring the importance Democrats placed on ousting Chambliss, dozens of Obama organizers and volunteers came to Georgia from other states after Election Day to aid Martin. They filled the 25 Obama campaign offices that stayed open these past few weeks in hopes of scoring an upset here.
Leading Democrats stumped for Martin, as well, although Obama declined a request by the campaign to come to Georgia. (He did tape a radio ad encouraging voters to back Martin.) Former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore came south to tell voters how Martin would help support Obama's agenda in Washington.
Republicans were no less energetic in rallying behind Chambliss, after seeing that Democrats had won control of the White House and both houses of Congress on Election Day. A host of GOP heavyweights, including McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, campaigned for Chambliss and stressed how important the runoff was for the party.
Chambliss was dogged in the first contest by his support of the $700 billion rescue package for ailing Wall Street firms, which many conservatives opposed. He turned his second campaign into a defense of checking Democratic power in Washington, a message his allies echoed.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) said his caucus would look to the Senate to head off huge spending increases on health care and through proposals such as an aid package for Detroit automakers.
"If the Democrats want to turn up the tired old way of spending, we're going to oppose that, and with the 41 votes in the Senate, that opposition becomes more important," Cantor said.