CUMMING, Ga. — Barack Obama is shaking up the South by greatly expanding the black vote and forcing Republicans to confront splits in the same white conservative base that has long fortified the GOP in Congress.
Georgia’s U.S. Senate race is Exhibit 1, as a record turnout by African-Americans in early voting has lifted the candidacy of Democrat Jim Martin against Saxby Chambliss, the Republican incumbent. At the same time, Wall Street’s meltdown — punctuated by the state’s own fiscal woes — has soured the mood for Republicans, and Chambliss must win back conservatives, angered by his vote for Treasury’s $700 billion financial rescue plan.
Here in Cumming, the county seat for Republican Forsyth County, north of Atlanta, all these forces were on display this week in the courthouse square.
As a small group of upscale-suburban supporters gathered to hear Chambliss, Andy Schneider, a self-described small businessman, lifelong Republican, Georgia native and former firefighter, stood in overalls on the corner holding a sign that condemned the Treasury rescue plan as “Corporate Welfare” and urged voters to “Bail the Rats Out of Congress.”
“It’s for the people, by the people,” Schneider told Politico. “I think that 99 percent of the phone calls that Saxby got were for him to vote against the bailout, yet he did it anyway. He’s supposed to represent the people of the state of Georgia. … By far, the vast majority did not want the bailout.”
Libertarian Allen Buckley, a 48-year-old attorney and third-party candidate, stands to benefit from the unhappiness of conservatives like Schneider, and Chambliss could be forced into an embarrassing December runoff if he can’t get the 50 percent plus one required under Georgia law.
The Republican is outwardly confident, but there’s urgency in his voice as he tours North Georgia, trying to boost turnout in his predominately white base: “The other folks are voting,” he bluntly tells supporters.
Smelling blood, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee jumped in two weeks ago and is on track to spend close to $5 million before Nov. 4 to keep Martin competitive. Former President Bill Clinton came to Atlanta on Saturday for a closed-door event to raise funds and rally the party; new Democratic ads cast Chambliss as taking millions from Wall Street donors and then backing the “bailout” at the taxpayers' expense.
“He bailed out all the fat cats up on Wall Street” begins a new radio ad jingle this week. “Saxby economics won’t fill my pickup truck ... won’t catch my mortgage up. Saxby economics don’t trickle down on me.”
In the past, Chambliss might have easily weathered this storm. But Obama and the financial meltdown are a one-two punch, challenging the political equations that have guided Republicans in the South since Richard Nixon four decades ago.
That “Southern Strategy”— born of the post-civil rights, Vietnam, War on Poverty unrest of the ‘60s — swung Democratic whites into the GOP. But no one envisioned an Obama or black voter turnout of this size; no one could see today’s financial crisis, which has reopened the old divide between Republican Big-Business backers and the party’s more populist conservative voters in the region.
Everything begins with Obama, and here in Dr. Martin Luther King’s old haunts, the young presidential candidate is never spoken of as just “that one.” It’s more like “Hurricane Obama” or “The Locomotive.”
“My 84-year-old grandmother has never voted, and this year she insisted I take her,” says Tommy Wright, a United Steelworkers operative in Gwinnett County. New data released this week shows black registration has grown to 30 percent statewide. Among he nearly 1.4 million absentee and early ballots counted thus far, blacks have maintained a 35 percent share, according to the latest tallies released by the Georgia secretary of state’s office Wednesday.
When Hispanic and Asian-American voters are counted, the white majority share of the early vote is about 61 percent. These numbers will surely change in the final tallies, but Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist, predicts that blacks could very well account for a record 30 percent of the Georgia vote this year — five percentage points higher than in the last presidential campaign, he said.
If the number should go higher — as seen in the early voting — it would throw out years of assumptions by pollsters. “This one doesn’t follow any of the rules,” said Tom Perdue, a longtime political consultant for Chambliss. “You can’t figure it out.” Like much about Southern politics, there’s a personal side beyond the numbers.
Just years apart, Chambliss, who turns 65 next month, and Martin, 63, crossed paths as fraternity brothers at the University of Georgia in the turbulent ‘60s. Each embodies much about his party in the years since.
A handsome, big-voiced man, the senator will forever seem the modern Southern good-old boy, more frat house than courthouse, but a likable person who allows tough things to be done in his name.
A small city lawyer from southwest Georgia, Chambliss first came to Congress in 1994, the same year Republicans took over the House and installed a fellow Georgian, Newt Gingrich, as speaker and two other Southern deputies in the top command. Gingrich would ultimately fall. But at the height of President Bush’s power in 2002, Chambliss jumped to the Senate, ousting a Democratic incumbent and assuming the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee as only a freshman.
In the same period, Martin, a former legal aid lawyer, labored out of the limelight in the state Legislature and later ran the Georgia Department of Human Resources under Democratic — and, for a period, Republican — governors. Five-foot-eight and bespectacled, he might be Chambliss’ bookish cousin, a modern Walter Mitty character reveling in his dream now.
The senator campaigns in two passenger buses big enough for a football team — and band. Martin’s is a 15-seat Chevy van that resembles an airport parking lot shuttle. When a reporter asks about the campaign, he says proudly: “I believe we are tied.” When it’s pointed out that that doesn’t do it, Martin laughs. “It’s pretty extraordinary that we’re in this position right now,” he says.
Beneath this demeanor is a tough intellect. “I’m not mean, but I’m tough. I’m plenty tough,” he says.
Tough enough to survive polio as a child and still serve as an Army intelligence officer in the Vietnam War. Martin has four degrees from the University of Georgia: “As my brother says, I have more degrees than a thermometer,” he jokes. And with supporters in Lawrenceville, he paraphrases the late Southern historian George Brown Tindall when speaking of this election — and what could be his own odyssey.
“In this process of change, we’re not losing our identity,” Martin says. “We’re finding out who we are.”
The same could be said of Chambliss, the dominate character in this drama.
The senator led an almost charmed existence in his first years in Congress, but nothing lately has been so fortunate. It took months of struggle to complete a new Farm Bill this year that put him at odds with the White House as he sought to protect the region’s powerful cotton interests. Within days, he broke ranks with the administration in May over a supplemental spending bill that included a landmark expansion of education bnefits for veterans — but also billions in new domestic spending.
National Democrats will never forgive Chambliss — who got draft deferments — for the punishing ads run in 2002 to help him oust Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs in Vietnam. But the great irony is that Chambliss is being punished hardest now for taking moderate stands applauded by his Democratic critics.
Responding to agriculture concerns, the Georgian first got himself in trouble last year when he flirted with bipartisan business-backed immigration reforms — and drew the ire and boos of conservatives at home. Chambliss quickly backed away, but when the Treasury bill came up this fall, he voted for the measure on Oct. 1 despite that fact that all seven of the House Republicans from Georgia opposed the measure.
Chambliss’ Farm Bill credentials are a mixed blessing in Georgia, since many conservatives are opposed to the subsidies he protects at a time of high food prices. When he next worked with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on a bipartisan energy policy, it also irritated some on the right.
“This is all about Chambliss, not Martin,” says Emory University’s Merle Black, a longtime observer of Southern politics. “If he hadn’t voted for the bailout, he would be sailing through.”
At one level, the senator embodies the tension for Southern Republicans as they try to govern from Big- Business, Chamber of Commerce positions while holding onto their more conservative, more populist base.
“He’s trying to balance between where his money comes from and where his votes come from,” says Black. Republican Jim Broyhill famously lost in North Carolina in the ‘80s for the same reasons. Chambliss is no Broyhill, the heir to a furniture fortune, but the financial meltdown is now so all encompassing that it magnifies the distrust of anyone in the senator’s position.
Add in the attacks by national Democratic ads, and the politics seems to come full circle.
Chambliss is accused of taking $2.5 million in Wall Street political donations and then supporting the bailout, a televised attack line funded as an independent expenditure by the DSCC. Technically, under campaign rules, the spot is not cleared in advance by the DSCC’s chairman, Sen. Charles Schumer. But Schumer is himself a New York Democrat, very close to Wall Street money men and an early supporter of the Treasury bill.
“It shows they have no compunction. The truth doesn’t make any difference to them,” Chambliss says.
“I’d like to check his FEC [Federal Election Commission] report,” he says of Schumer’s own campaign receipts. “I don’t know where he got $2.5 million from.”
Chambliss’ House career included a period when redistricting forced him to compete for black votes; that experience could now be an asset outside Atlanta. His work on Savannah harbor dredging is expected to win him support there from the longshoreman’s union, with its large black membership. And he has nurtured ties to black clergy in the Macon area.
Even now, the incumbent is still below 50 percent in his own polls, but “Martin is at a ceiling,” he says. “What we’ve got to do is get independent votes. The base is gradually coming back.”
That is, unless it opts to punish him first by forcing a runoff.