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CAMPAIGN '08

Democrats hope to add to majority in the Senate

The Georgia runoff between Chambliss and Martin on Tuesday brings out the big political guns.

December 01, 2008|James Oliphant | Oliphant is a writer in our Washington bureau.

ATLANTA — Jim Martin was feeling the spirit.

At historically black Morris Brown College, surrounded by former Barack Obama campaign staffers and African American Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the normally unassuming, bespectacled white lawyer had discovered his inner preacher.

"We're all in this together!" Martin, 63, intoned.

"Talk to me!" a man shouted in response.

"The Republicans believe if they have 41 votes in the Senate, they can stop this great president!"

"That's right!"

"Now this isn't Landslide Jim you're talking to," Martin said. "I need your help."

Martin was never supposed to be this close to a U.S. Senate seat. A relative unknown in Georgia politics, the former head of the state's Department of Human Resources had to survive two primaries before securing the privilege of receiving what promised to be a whomping at the hands of the Republican incumbent, Saxby Chambliss.

After all, this is Georgia, where John McCain topped Barack Obama by 5 percentage points and President Bush won by 17 percentage points four years ago. In 2002, Chambliss was able to unseat a decorated Vietnam War veteran, Max Cleland, in part by questioning his patriotism.

But Martin benefited from the heavy black turnout Nov. 4 and was able to draw close enough to Chambliss to force a runoff, scheduled for Tuesday.

For the last three weeks, the Senate race has given the political world a final campaign fix. Former President Clinton, Al Gore and McCain all have campaigned here. Today promises the arrival of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to campaign for Chambliss.

The big-name attention to Georgia is rooted in a Democratic effort to secure a 60-vote majority in the Senate, which would make Republican filibusters impossible and allow easy passage for many pieces of legislation.

The Democrats hold 58 seats (including the two independent senators who normally caucus with them), with races in Georgia and Minnesota still not settled.

Chambliss repeatedly has called himself "the firewall," the man who can single-handedly derail the Democratic agenda.

Polls show Martin trailing by 3 to 5 percentage points, but many here think that if President-elect Obama came to Georgia to rally the African American base, it would put the Democrat over the top.

Obama volunteers have flocked to Georgia, and holdovers from his campaign here, who engineered a surprisingly high election-day turnout, remain at work. But Obama's supercharged fundraising apparatus and e-mail network haven't been activated for Martin.

And with just days to go, the president-elect -- who recorded a radio ad on behalf of the Democratic candidate -- "has made no commitments" to travel to Georgia, spokesman Nick Shapiro said.

Mike Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, rejected the notion that Obama could lock down a Martin victory, noting that McCain had won Georgia.

"The voters here have already rejected Barack Obama once," he said.

And Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University, said coming to Georgia would be a risk that could damage Obama's political momentum.

"If Obama really thought that Martin was going to win, he'd make a quick hit and claim victory," Black said.

Cash from outside groups has rushed into Georgia, much of it tied to a major battle between the business community and organized labor.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $1 million on advertising in the state. It fears that if Democrats won a filibuster-proof majority, they would pass a bill making it easier for unions to form in businesses. Under the "card check" legislation, companies would recognize unions if a majority of workers signed cards saying they favored a union, replacing the traditional method of a secret ballot among workers.

The AFL-CIO said it was sending 10,000 volunteers to Georgia in the final week to drive the union vote. There are about 325,000 union voters in the state, which could make a difference in a low-turnout election.

William Miller, national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Republicans should be worried even if Obama didn't show up.

"Anyone who is not concerned about the organizational prowess of the Democrats and Obama in Georgia needs to be," Miller said.

"What they showed is how to turn people out in very large numbers."

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joliphant@tribune.com

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