GOP wins big in Ga. Senate runoff

Chambliss victory preserves filibuster

By Robbie Brown and Carl Hulse
New York Times / December 3, 2008
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ATLANTA - Saxby Chambliss, a first-term Republican senator, was reelected by Georgia voters yesterday in a substantial victory, ending Democratic hopes for a 60-vote majority in the Senate that would make it difficult for Republicans to filibuster the Obama administration's legislative agenda.

With 95 percent of the vote counted in the runoff, Chambliss had 58 percent and his Democratic challenger, Jim Martin, had 42 percent. The margin was far greater than the 3 percentage points that separated the two men in the Nov. 4 election, when neither got the required 50 percent. Many of the Democrats who turned out last month in enthusiastic support of Barack Obama apparently did not show up at the polls yesterday.

"For a lot of African-American voters, the real election was last month," said Merle Black, a specialist in Southern politics at Emory University. "The importance of electing the first African-American president in history generated enormous enthusiasm. Everything else was anticlimactic."

A little more than 2 million people voted in the runoff, compared with 3.7 million on Nov. 4. In heavily black Clayton County, just south of Atlanta, Martin's vote was less than half what it was in the earlier election. Only 9.2 percent of registered Georgians cast early votes in the runoff, compared with 36 percent in the general election.

Chambliss, 65, a pro-business conservative, campaigned in the runoff on a platform of limiting Obama's ability to pass legislation in a Democrat-controlled Congress, and many voters interviewed yesterday said the balance of power in the Senate had been an important factor in their choice of a candidate.

"If you can't have a little back-and-forth arguing between the parties, then the party in power will make mistakes," said Ron Zukowski, a computer specialist in Atlanta who voted for Chambliss. "This was my chance to say no, and I said no."

Democratic voters said they had seen Martin's campaign as an opportunity to support Obama. "I want the Democrats to not have to deal with a filibuster," said Charles Bedell, a social worker in Atlanta who supported Martin. "It's important to me to have a Democratic senator."

Chambliss's victory ends at least for this year the Democratic push to reach the 60-vote milestone, though the party hopes that a victory in the continuing Minnesota recount will give them 59 seats in the Senate.

A lawyer for former comedian Al Franken, the Democratic candidate in Minnesota, said yesterday that the campaign's internal count showed fewer than 50 votes separating Franken from Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, in the nation's last undecided Senate race. The outcome could remain undecided for weeks.

Even with 58 seats, Senate Democrats would have their largest majority since the late 1970s, putting them in a strong position to advance their agenda on economic recovery, health care, labor organizing, and climate change. Democrats say they should be able to peel away a stray Republican or two to overcome procedural obstacles. Nevertheless, Republicans were desperate for Chambliss to pull out a victory and hold Democrats below that symbolic 60-vote level.

Both sides are already gearing up for 2010, where Republicans will again have more senators up for reelection than Democrats will, providing Democrats with another chance to hit or surpass the 60 mark.

In the Georgia runoff, both campaigns enjoyed national support from the two parties, which spent about $2 million each and sent some of their biggest names to the state.

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