The day after the election, Republicans across the country breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, the Democrats had won the presidency and increased their majorities in both houses of Congress. But it initially looked like the Democrats were going to fall short of their goal of a 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority.
Not only did the Democrats fail to take out Republican senators in Kentucky and Mississippi, but a few other troubled GOP incumbents seemed like they might hang on. Gordon Smith was leading in Oregon. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and even the felonious Ted Stevens of Alaska appeared to have won reelection. Saxby Chambliss was poised to avoid a runoff in Georgia. It was as if swing voters saw the early returns and decided to put a brake on the Democrats. Joe Lieberman was reportedly in talks about caucusing with Senate Republicans if Harry Reid's minions took away his committee chairmanship.
Since then, the tide has again turned. When all the votes were counted, Smith lost (a Constitution Party candidate played the spoiler). Stevens lost. Lieberman kept his committee chairmanship and stayed in the Democratic caucus. With 88 percent of ballots recounted, Coleman stubbornly clings to his lead over Al Franken, but Franken and the Democrats appear willing to pry that seat from Republican hands by any means necessary -- perhaps including having the Democrat-controlled Senate vote to seat Sen. Stuart Smalley.
When all the returns were in, freshman Sen. Saxby Chambliss fell just short of an absolute majority and was forced into a runoff against Democrat Jim Martin. Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat who endorsed against Chambliss in 2002 but supports his reelection now, calls Chambliss "the last man standing" against a "far-left agenda" sailing through the Senate without debate. In the event Coleman is unseated, Zig Zag Zell is right: Chambliss will be the last Republican capable of keeping the Democrats from getting to 60 Senate seats after all.
TUESDAYS'S RUNOFF has now become a focal point in the battle for the Senate. President-elect Barack Obama has kept 25 of his Georgia field offices open to help Martin's campaign and left much of his paid in-state staff intact. Obama field operatives from throughout the South and as far away as Ohio have streamed into Georgia to support the Democratic Senate candidate.
Meanwhile, John McCain and the base-friendly Sarah Palin have each traveled to Georgia to stump for Chambliss, the latter four times. The McCain-Palin ticket carried the state with 52 percent of the vote, despite Obama's vast field operation and substantial black turnout. Chambliss ran behind McCain, taking 49.8 percent of the vote to Martin's 46.8 percent.
One reason for the difference: Libertarian Party candidate Allen Buckley's presence in the race. Buckley received nearly 3.5 percent of the vote, running almost 100,000 votes ahead of Libertarian presidential nominee Bob Barr -- even though Barr had served as a Republican congressman from Georgia and polled as high as 8 percent statewide in the presidential contest. Many of those voters were fiscal conservatives upset with Chambliss's vote for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout -- or, as he prefers to describe it, "the financial rescue package."
"It's for the people, by the people," an anti-bailout conservative told the Politico in late October. "I think that 99 percent of the phone calls that Saxby got were for him to vote against the bailout, yet he did it anyway. He's supposed to represent the people of the state of Georgia.… By far, the vast majority did not want the bailout."
Chambliss has been trying to win such voters back by hitting his Democratic opponent's liberal voting record as a member of the Georgia state legislature. In a conference call last month, he described Martin as "the most liberal member of the state house" and someone who "supports partial-birth abortion, supports gun control, voted against making English the official language of Georgia, he voted against toughening laws against child prostitution." Chambliss concluded that Martin has "nothing in common" with people who voted Libertarian in November (the senator may be a little hazy on the Libertarian Party's position on prostitution).
The parallel is the 1992 Georgia Senate race. A Libertarian candidate won more votes than incumbent Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler's Election Day margin over Republican Paul Coverdell. Fowler did not get the required 50 percent plus one, however, and the race went to a runoff. Eliminated from the second round of voting, the Libertarian endorsed Coverdell, who went on to become Georgia's next U.S. senator.
DON'T EXPECT a repeat this time around, Libertarians say. Buckley has refused to endorse either major party candidate and has criticized Chambliss not only on the bailout, but also on civil liberties and the Iraq war. The Libertarian also-ran drew up a statement of principles (pdf) for the two candidates to sign but neither one bit. Buckley told a blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "I believe Martin would be better with respect to civil liberties. It's hard to believe he could be worse than Chambliss on fiscal matters, but he could be so."
The Libertarian's voters may be just as conflicted. According to Public Policy Polling, 36 percent of them supported John McCain for president, 32 percent voted for Barack Obama, and another 30 percent were for Bob Barr. Buckley's support also skewed younger than Chambliss's.
Even without the Libertarian's support, Chambliss has many of the advantages Coverdell enjoyed in the 1992 runoff -- and a few he didn't. This will be the first opportunity for conservative Georgians to rebuke a Democratic president-elect. In '92, that president-elect had carried Georgia (with help from Ross Perot). In 2008, Georgia voted Republican for president. Sixteen years ago, Fowler won the first round of voting. This time out, Chambliss finished first in November.
That gives Chambliss a distinct advantage heading into the lower-turnout runoff election, one that has been reflected in the polls. Chambliss finished ahead of Martin in November with a Libertarian on the ballot and Obama bringing record numbers of new black voters to the polls. Will he not do so again without them? White men account for 36 percent of the half-million early votes already cast, up from 27 percent on Election Day.
Saxby Chambliss isn't taking anything for granted. Neither are the libertarian-leaning voters who may help decide the election. With the race down to two candidates, they can reelect a Republican who has sometimes supported the Bush-era big-government conservatism that has so tarnished the GOP brand -- or try their luck with a Democratic supermajority eager to grow government at rates unseen since the Great Society's heyday.
For the GOP, it's still filibuster or bust.