Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss won a resounding victory over Democrat Jim Martin in the Georgia Senate runoff Tuesday, capturing a second term and ending Democratic hopes of gaining a 60-seat filibuster-proof Senate majority.
Chambliss defeated Martin by 16 percentage points, 58 to 42 percent, with 93 percent of precincts reporting. Turnout was moderate across the state– estimated to be around 30-35 percent – a development that unexpectedly played to Chambliss’ advantage.
In the battle to get out the vote, Republicans won decisively. GOP turnout in the party's metropolitan Atlanta suburban strongholds surged for Chambliss, while African-American turnout dropped off significantly from the levels attained in the November election.
The runoff was necessitated after Chambliss came up about 9,000 votes short of the 50 percent threshold necessary to win the seat outright on Election Night.
In his victory speech, Chambliss said his re-election was a triumph of conservative principles.
“This race has been nationalized and people all around the world had their eyes on Georgia. And you delivered tonight a strong message to the world that conservative Georgia values matter,” he said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, who stood by Chambliss as he gave his victory speech, echoed those remarks.
“As we head into the 2010 cycle, tonight’s result sends a strong and confident message to those committed to electing candidates who stand by the core principles upon which our Party was founded,” he said in a statement.
Scores of Barack Obama’s leading field organizers had been dispatched to Georgia for the runoff, but without Obama’s name on the ballot they were unable to rally enough voters to the polls – particularly for a little-known Democratic politician.
Martin aligned himself closely with Obama, and was hoping that the president-elect would travel to Georgia to campaign for him. But Obama decided not to expend any political capital on a tough race and only taped a one-minute radio ad and a robo-call on Martin’s behalf.
Instead, Martin relied on the help of a variety of politicians and celebrities – ranging from Bill Clinton to the rapper Ludacris – but none were able to drive voter turnout the way an Obama visit would have.
“Barack Obama is not disliked in the state of Georgia. The Obama people understood this campaign was not winnable,” said Georgia based pollster Matt Towery. “He went beyond the call of duty just cutting the robo-calls. That shouldn’t be held against Barack Obama.”
African-Americans account for much of the Democratic base in Georgia, and they showed up in record numbers during the November election. But early voting numbers and turnout patterns in the runoff suggest that black voters did not turn up in nearly the same numbers they did last month.
Meanwhile, Chambliss framed the race as a firewall to prevent unchecked Democratic power, a message that resonated among his core supporters. And in a Republican-leaning state, Chambliss was able to get enough Republicans to return to the polls, aided by a last-minute campaign visit from Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
The Chambliss campaign’s efforts were bolstered by the RNC, which anticipated the likelihood of a runoff and formulated a detailed game plan one week before the November election to dispatch its resources into Georgia. During the runoff campaign, Chambliss campaign volunteers reached millions of potential Republican voters by phone as part of a voter contact program that met high expectations.
“We combined a strong, conservative candidate in Senator Chambliss with a grassroots effort that leveraged technology to reach millions of Georgians via mail, phone, Internet, and in person,” Duncan said in a statement. “We shared our message of conservative principles and Georgians agreed.&rdqu;
GOP efforts focused on maximizing turnout in the heavily Republican suburbs of Atlanta, particularly Cobb and Gwinnett counties.
It worked: Chambliss won 64 percent of the vote in Cobb County, compared to his 53 percent performance there in November. In Gwinnett County, Chambliss carried 62 percent of the vote, compared to 53 percent last month.
Chambliss’ victory leaves Democrats with 58 Senate seats, with just the Minnesota Senate race between GOP Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken left undecided.