The prospect of a 60-seat, filibuster-resistant Senate majority rests on the outcome of Tuesday’s runoff between Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin.
With Democrats holding at 58 seats and just two Senate races still to be decided, if Chambliss manages to win a second term, the too-close-to-call Minnesota Senate contest between GOP Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken suddenly loses much of its national relevance.
Here are five things to watch in Georgia’s Senate runoff.
Forget about the issues. Only one thing matters in this runoff — turning out voters. The party that does a better job of mobilizing its base will capture this seat.
Turnout is expected to be considerably lighter than a month ago, when John McCain carried Georgia by a surprisingly narrow 52 percent to 47 percent over Barack Obama. Obama’s solid performance was powered by a record African-American turnout, with black voters accounting for over 30 percent of the votes cast — about five percentage points higher than in the 2004 presidential campaign.
Democrat Jim Martin will need a comparably high African-American turnout to have a shot at winning, but there are signs he may fall short.
Through Monday, African-Americans made up only 22.5 percent of the 492,000 voters who cast early ballots — a far lower share than either the 35 percent who cast early ballots for the Nov. 4 election or who voted on Election Day.
If black turnout is in the low 20 percent range, there’s almost no way Martin can win.
Home to one of the most affluent African-American suburban communities in the nation, majority-black DeKalb County is the most heavily Democratic large county in Georgia — it delivered more votes to John Kerry in 2004 than any other in the state, including Atlanta’s Fulton County.
This year, Obama won more total votes in Fulton County, but he won a greater percentage in neighboring DeKalb. By winning a staggering 79 percent of the DeKalb vote, Obama took a 189,000-vote margin out of the county.
Likewise, Martin crushed Chambliss in DeKalb County, 76 percent to 21 percent, to win by a 168,000-vote margin.
So if Martin pulls off a win in the runoff, chances are it will be anchored in DeKalb County.
"DeKalb is key — if [Democrats] turned African-Americans out there, it points to a larger, good strategy,” said Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association and a former campaign manager for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. “If they fail to do so, there is nowhere else they can make it up, period."
The GOP’s suburban and exurban firewall
Republicans don’t have any single stronghold comparable in size to DeKalb County. But they do have a suburban and exurban firewall in the metro Atlanta area that begins with populous Gwinnett and Cobb counties.
In his 2002 win, Chambliss won both with 60 percent of the vote or more. But this year, his performance in these counties dropped to 53 percent. Some of that was due to the strength of the Obama field effort, and some of it can be attributed to demographic changes in Cobb and Gwinnett. Either way, Chambliss needs to amp up his ground game in both places if he hopes to win.
What the polls say
On Election Day, Chambliss won 49.8 percent of the vote to Martin’s 46.8 percent, not far off the RealClearPolitics polling average for the race.
Since then, the GOP senator has led in every poll taken during the runoff campaign, and Martin hasn’t broken 47 percent in any of them. Still, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the polling since even pollsters admit the difficulty of projecting black turnout.
Obama vs. Palin
The runoff post-mortems will invariably mention the roles played by President-elect Obama and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
While Obama chose not to campaign for the Democratic challenger, he cut one-minute radio ad for Martin, and more than 100 Obama field organizers assisted with get-out-the-vote efforts. Martin, meanwhile, has done everything possible to connect himself to the president-elect.
As a result, a Martin victory will almost certainly burnish Obama’s reputation, despite the fact that Obama chose not to expend much political capital, and a loss will be hard to pin on the president-elect since he avoided any direct, high-profile involvement.
Palin, the unsuccessful GOP vice presidential nominee, also stands to gain, no matter the outcome.
By making a handful of well-attended appearances with Chambliss on the eve of the runoff, she reminded other aspiring Republican politicians of her ability to excite the base — which could make her a hot property during the 2010 election cycle. She also managed to collect a few political chits that could prove helpful in 2012, and once again proved her status as cable television news catnip, as evidenced by extensive coverage of her Georgia visit.