Georgia reporters, pundits, bloggers and political junkies are all trying to assess the meaning of the result of Tuesday's U.S. Senate runoff, which Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss won by an unexpectedly large margin. Chambliss, who fell just short of 50 percent on Nov. 4, bested Democrat Jim Martin by 14 points.
Normally an incumbent forced into a runoff is in trouble in the second round of voting, as the majority anti-incumbent vote from the first round consolidates around the challenger. Chambliss beat the trend, adding more than seven percentage points to his total.
A look back at the four-week runoff campaign shows that it mattered less what Chambliss did than what Martin did to himself. Leading up to Nov. 4, Martin ran an effective advertising campaign that repeatedly reminded Georgians of the troubles brought on by what he called "Bush-Saxby Economics," and opposed the $700 billion Bush administration bailout of Wall Street, which Chambliss supported.
While Martin was underfunded, his campaign's message in the general election was solid enough that he came in just behind Barack Obama on Nov. 4, and with the Libertarian Senate nominee pulling 3.4 percent of the vote, Chambliss was in a runoff and in trouble.
Strangely, once the runoff started, Martin seemed to forget everything that got him there. Instead of sticking with his effective economic message and contrasting his opposition to the bailout with Chambliss' support, he and the Washington crew who took over his campaign decided that tying Martin closely to the new president-elect was the way to go.
While they seemed to argue that Martin would help Obama on economic matters and Chambliss would obstruct him, all that voters figured out was that Martin was touting his desire to be a rubber stamp for Obama (who, by the way, lost Georgia this year, a fact the Martin operation ignored).
While it is understandable that national operatives who made a drive-thru runoff appearance in the Peach State would fail to understand the campaign's circumstance, Martin has been in Georgia politics long enough to know that since Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, no Democrat has won a statewide race by lashing himself to his national party. Georgia is changing, and likely now moving in the Democrats' direction, but it is still a conservative place that has shown no interest in electing U.S. senators who promise to do national Democrats' bidding.
It was clear from the two candidates' competing ads that one of the campaigns had made a serious strategic error. On television you would see an ad from Chambliss or any of a number of conservative groups saying that Martin would go to Washington to be a rubber stamp for Obama and Democratic congressional leaders. In the next commercial break, there would be Martin, using his own money to run an ad saying he's going to go to Washington to be a rubber stamp for Obama and Democratic congressional leaders.
Even a rudimentary knowledge of Georgia's political history made it obvious which side was miscalculating, and the results of the runoff voting confirm it.
Martin did face a challenge in spurring Democratic voters, especially African Americans and young people, to return to the polls for the runoff in the numbers that they did for the general election. He hoped his show of fealty to the new president would provide motivation. Obama, who chose not to risk his own political capital by actively campaigning for Martin, made a show of sending in campaign aides to help with turnout, but they were clearly less focused and driven than they were for their boss before Nov. 4.
In addition, Martin couldn't count on the state Democratic Party to help him in the endeavor, since it never built the field operation that it claimed to be focusing on, and instead spent its scarce dollars on D.C. inaugural parties and college professors who were the latest fad in Democratic armchair strategizing.
It was obvious as soon as the statistics from early voting were available that Martin's strategy of announcing to the world his loyalty to the new president was not only failing to generate elevated turnout by Democrats, but was in fact spurring angry and frightened Republicans to vote in their last chance to "stop Obama." Martin kept right on going, however, and even appeared at the Capitol on runoff eve with three controversial Atlanta rappers (one of whom is currently serving a sentence on federal weapons charges) to drive home his point.
Chambliss' re-election may be the biggest missed opportunity by Democrats anywhere in America. Metro Atlanta is clearly trending Democratic, and that combined with Chambliss' weakness made him very vulnerable. If Georgia Democrats are going to take advantage of their chances, however, they're going to need better candidates, a party focused on winning elections and a strategy to ensure opportunities don't pass them by.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Web address: billshipponline.com.