Georgia Senate race heads to runoff

Georgia’s Senate race is headed for a Dec. 2 runoff, as GOP incumbent Saxby Chambliss’s share of the vote Wednesday fell barely below 50 percent, with ballots still being counted.

 

The Georgia Secretary of State’s office said a formal announcement won’t be possible until the results are certified next week and that Fulton County still hasn’t finished processing votes.

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Out of 3.7 million votes cast and with 96 percent of precincts reporting, the official count has Chambliss at 49.9 percent and Democratic challenger Jim Martin at 46.7 percent. A vote tally below 50 percent triggers an automatic runoff, according to state law.

The focus now shifts to tens of thousands of outstanding ballots from absentee, military and overseas voters. Those are still coming in, and both campaigns on Wednesday predicted they will win the bulk of them.

During conference calls with reporters, Chambliss and Martin both said a runoff was all but certain.

“It was a pretty topsy-turvy night, but we’re pretty excited about where we wound up,” Chambliss said. “We are in full-fledged runoff mode and moving in the direction of making sure we get folks to turn out on Dec. 2. This will obviously draw importance around the country. We know there will be a lot of attention focused on us.”

The reason: Although the balance of power cannot tip in Democrats’ favor, a Chambliss loss could increase the Democratic Party’s already-strengthened majority in the chamber. And, both President-elect Barack Obama and possibly his Republican opponents John McCain or Sarah Palin could be in Georgia this month to stump for their party’s candidates.

Martin said he has reached out to Obama and “would be delighted” to have his help.

“Dec. 2 is going to be about helping President Barack Obama get our economy back on track,” Martin said. “This is not ‘Landslide Jim,’ but we’re going to win this thing.”

Martin also reminded reporters that he has already won one runoff this year. It was Aug. 5 in the Democratic primary against Dekalb County CEO Vernon Jones.

A Vietnam veteran and former state representative, Martin was helped by the Obama campaign, which registered hundreds of thousands of new African-American voters in the Peach State. That quickly thinned Chambliss’s once-mighty polling leads to within most polls’ margins of error.

Tuesday night’s results followed the same pattern: Chambliss built a strong, early lead, at one point topping Martin by a 55-41 percent total with 82 percent of precincts reporting.

Martin said he expects to continue to benefit from Obama’s coattails and likely won’t change his strategy of reaching out to African-American voters.

Chambliss also said he won’t change his campaign strategy other than to seek help from prominent Republican figures such as former presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani or McCain and Palin.

Chambliss said he has already offered his congratulations to Obama, but won’t be surprised to see him campaigning for Martin. He said once voters clear away the “distraction” of the presidential race, they will vote Republican.

“We fully expect Sen. Obama will be here campaigning for Jim,” Chambliss said. “We will also bring in surrogates … There is a good chance that John (McCain) will be here.”

Chambliss also reminded reporters that former President Bill Clinton campaigned in the 1990s for Democrat Wyche Fowler against Republican Paul Coverdell, only to see Coverdell prevail.

Such a quirky history means Obama offers no clear advantage to Martin, Chambliss said.

“It cuts both ways,” he said of Obama’s influence in the race. “It will help turn out voters for Martin, but it will also energize our base.”