Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss won re-election Tuesday in the Georgia runoff, giving the party a face-saving victory in an otherwise dismal election cycle and dashing Democrats’ hope for a supermajority to ram their agenda through Congress.
Mr. Chambliss led Democrat Jim Martin 57 percent to 43 percent with 96 percent of the precincts reporting, according to unofficial results from the Georgia secretary of state.
“It’s huge,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, adding that the Georgia victory preserved the downtrodden party’s leverage to negotiate with the Democratic majority and planted the seeds for a Republican comeback.
The Arizona Republican drew parallels with the party’s march back to prominence after election defeats in 1992 that started with a Georgia runoff election win in which Republican Paul Coverdell defeated incumbent Democrat Sen. Wyche Fowler.
“You could say that after taking a pretty good licking last month that Republicans could take some solace in the fact that Georgia once again would represent the beginning of a comeback,” Mr. Kyl said.
Mr. Chambliss echoed that sentiment.
“I’m excited to be the first race that leads us into the 2010 campaign because it’ll be a tough fight,” he said at a victory party in Cobb County, the Associated Press reports.
The drawn-out contest between Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Martin gave Democrats a shot at a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority that could have effectively sidelined Republicans and allowed the majority to pass whatever it wanted. All Democrats needed was to pick up the Georgia seat and win the recount under way in the Senate election in Minnesota.
The Minnesota recount of a tight race between incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken is expected to be completed Wednesday, but the final result will not be known until state election officials review all challenged ballots Dec. 16.
But Senate Democrats, who expanded a thin 51-vote majority by seven votes in the Nov. 4 election, said they still will be in a powerful position to beat filibusters even if Republicans hold on to the Georgia and Minnesota seats.
“We will be able to accomplish many things with 58 votes,” a Democratic leadership aide said, adding that more than a couple of Republicans are willing to cross the aisle on a variety of issues. “You have to look at it issue by issue.”
In the current Congress, Democrats often wooed enough bipartisan support to nearly win cloture votes that would have ended filibusters of legislation opposed by Republicans.
Both campaigns, to varying extents, billed the runoff as a referendum on President-elect Barack Obama and the Democrat-led Congress.
Mr. Martin, a former state lawmaker, tried to ride Mr. Obama’s coattails to victory, promising to be a crucial Senate vote for the change promised by the new administration.
Mr. Chambliss vowed to be a “fire wall” against power-drunk Democrats running wild with a liberal agenda, railing on the campaign trail against Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Martin both said the key to the election would be turnout, which was light Tuesday.
Turnout is typically low in runoff elections because voters tire of the campaigns and turn their attention elsewhere after casting ballots the first time. Low turnout was expected to favor Mr. Chambliss in the heavily conservative state, where Republicans also hold the other U.S. Senate seat, the governor’s office and control of the state General Assembly.
Georgia did not back Mr. Obama in his White House victory, instead going for Republican nominee Sen. John McCain by a 200,000-vote margin. But by some accounts, including that of National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, the popularity of Mr. Obama nationwide has grown since he won the presidency.