Relieved Republicans celebrated a resounding win in Georgia’s hard-fought U.S. Senate runoff, a victory that denied Democrats a filibuster-proof majority and cemented the state’s reputation as a Republican bastion.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss trounced Democrat Jim Martin on Tuesday night, winning his second term by a margin of more than 10 percentage points. The race dashed Democrats’ hopes of a 60-seat majority immune to Senate filibusters, which would have given President-elect Barack Obama a stronger hand moving his agenda.
A Martin victory was a longshot in Georgia. A Democrat hasn’t won an open statewide seat since 1998.
Martin hoped to capitalize on excitement surrounding Obama, but was unable to get many of the president elect’s voters back to the polls one month after the general election. Obama never came to the state to campaign for Martin, although he recorded automated phone calls and a radio ad for the former state lawmaker from Atlanta.
Chambliss revved up the state’s vaunted Republican turnout operation and kept a parade of ex-Republican presidential candidates traipsing through the state to whip up enthusiasm. He brought in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the former candidate for vice president, as his closer. She headlined four rallies for Chambliss across the state Monday that drew thousands of party faithful.
Minnesota — where a recount is under way — now remains the only unresolved Senate contest in the country. But the stakes there are significantly lower now that Georgia has put a 60-seat Democratic supermajority out of reach.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Chambliss captured 57 percent of votes to Martin’s 43 percent. It was a rare bright spot for Republicans in a year where they lost the White House, along with several House and Senate seats.
Martin called Chambliss to concede before 10 p.m., then emerged to tell supporters as his voice cracked: “For me and my family and campaign team and all of you this is a sad moment.
Chambliss portrayed himself as a firewall against Democrats in Washington getting a blank check.
“You have delivered a message that a balance in government in Washington is necessary and that’s not only what the people of Georgia want, it’s what the people of America want,” Chambliss told 500 cheering supporters at a victory rally in Cobb County.
Martin, 63, made the economy the centerpiece of his bid, casting himself as a champion for the neglected middle class.
With most precincts reporting, turnout stood at about 35 percent. That’s higher than the 20 percent predicted by a spokesman for Secretary of State Karen Handel, but it’s far less than the 65 percent who voted in last month’s general election.
The runoff between the former University of Georgia fraternity brothers was necessary after a three-way general election prevented any of the candidates from getting the necessary 50 percent.
Chambliss came to the Senate in 2002 after defeating Democratic Sen. Max Cleland in a campaign that infuriated Democrats. Chambliss ran a TV ad that questioned Cleland’s commitment to national security and flashed a photo of Osama bin Laden. Cleland is a triple amputee wounded in the Vietnam War.
He was a loyal supporter of President Bush and, as a freshman, rose to become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The former agriculture lawyer from Moultrie has been the ranking Republican on the panel since Democrats won control of the Senate.
Some 3.7 million people cast ballots in this year’s general election, and both sides have since tried to keep voters’ attention with a barrage of ads and visits by political heavy-hitters.
Former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore both stumped for Martin.
Republican nominee John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee hit the stump for Chambliss.