A historic Senate runoff in Georgia is shaping up as a political battle royal that could hand complete control of Congress to President-elect Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
The Dec. 2 special election comes on the heels of the Nov. 4 election in which incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss outpolled liberal Democratic challenger Jim Martin.
But Chambliss fell just short of the 50-percent margin that Georgia law requires.
Already, a tsunami of cash from across the country is pouring into both campaigns.
The stakes are incredibly high. If the Republicans keep the Georgia Senate seat they will have a much greater chance of stopping Obama’s legislative plans.
Obama has promised he’ll enact sweeping legislation to increase taxes on those earning high incomes, including increasing the capital gains taxes, personal income taxes and FICA taxes, among others.
Other key Democratic agenda items may include legislation to enforce a new Fairness Doctrine to limit the influence of talk radio, increase abortion rights, and to make sweeping cuts to the military, including missile defense.
But all of Obama’s plans and the Democratic wish list may hinge on the Georgia runoff and defeating Republican Chambliss.
When the new Congress convenes in January, Democrats will firmly control the House of Representatives with about a 75-seat majority. In the Senate, Democrats will hold 57 of the 100 seats.
Despite the strong majorities, there is a hitch -- a big one for congressional Democrats.
Under Senate rules, Democrats need 60 votes to pass major legislation and cut off filibuster debate that can effectively stop a floor vote.
As of today, the Democrats don’t have the magic 60 Senate votes, but they have expressed confidence that they can persuade “two or three” liberal Republicans like Arlen Specter, Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe to cross the aisle and vote with them on key legislation.
If the Democrats succeed and take out Chambliss in the special election, replacing him with Democrat Martin, they will have 58 Senate votes, greatly increasing their chances of getting the magic 60 votes.
The bottom line: As long as Senate Republicans can muster the 41 votes required to avoid cloture (which ends a filibuster debate), they can continue to filibuster, forcing the Democrats to either amend their legislation at the bargaining table or kill their legislation altogether.
Already the battle lines for the Georgia race are shaping up.
State election officials say early voting in the runoff could begin as soon as Nov. 17.
Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has promised to campaign for Chambliss, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may join the fray as well.
“She wants to come down, but right now we are working with her schedulers to see if that’s possible,” Chambliss spokeswoman Michelle Grasso told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The big question: Whether Obama will risk political capital by suspending his presidential transition for a campaign swing through Georgia on Martin’s behalf.
Martin has closely aligned himself with Obama’s policies, and pundits believe he benefited from voters turning out to cast ballots for America’s first African-American president.
McCain, however, carried Georgia by a 52 to 47 percent margin over Obama.
Chambliss won 49.8 percent of the vote on Nov. 4, while Martin had 46.8 percent. Libertarian Allen Buckley tallied 3.4 percent.
Most observers believe Martin faces an uphill battle in the runoff, given the conservative nature of Georgia voters.
“There are some policies being proposed nationally that are clearly not in sync with the positions of the people who live in our state,” says Eric Tanenblatt, who served as political director for Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, who won his 1992 race after a runoff against Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler.
But Republicans are worried. The runoff election will draw fewer voters than the general election, and Obama's staffers are experts at getting out the vote and running a powerful ground organization -- factors that proved crucial to them in caucus state victories against Hillary Clinton earlier this year.
So far, the central issue in the runoff appears to be the importance of the seat to ratifying Obama’s agenda.
“This isn’t a difficult race for anybody to figure out,” Martin said on Nov. 5. “I’m going to do everything I can to help Barack Obama get off to a fast start, and Saxby Chambliss has promised to do everything he can to stop Barack Obama from succeeding.”
Chambliss, conversely, is running a TV spot that says Martin “wants to help Barack Obama raise taxes on nearly every small business in Georgia.”
Georgians are beginning to wake up that this election may be critical for stopping Obama’s liberal agenda.
The Savannah Morning News endorsed Chambliss in the runoff. “Keeping him in the Senate would maintain a small check against a Democratic-controlled Congress that could steam roll legislation through with abandon,” it said in an editorial.
The Marietta Daily Journal raised the same issue in its editorial that re-endorsed Chambliss: “Although it does not appear that the Democrats have gained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the gain of Chambliss’ seat would put them closer to that mark and make it even easier, with the help of just a few aisle-crossers, to attain an effectively filibuster-proof majority.”
Small wonder then that Georgia suddenly finds itself at the center of the political universe. Larry J. Sabato, who heads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, warns that outside interference could lead to a backlash from Georgia voters.
“My guess is that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee will pour money in, and Obama will do a taped robocall and the like,” Sabato tells Newsmax. “Maybe he’ll make a visit, although that would be elevating the contest.”
Make no mistake about it -- Obama and his campaign know his congressional success may depend on what happens in Georgia on Dec. 2.
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