“Can Democrats Win Without Obama?” The Guardian, 2 December 2008.
The Georgia senate race puts “hope and change” into perspective.
Massive grassroots outreach, seismic black turnout, committed support up and down the ticket: These factors, which propelled Barack Obama to victory on November 4, have been trumpeted as the building blocks of the Democratic party’s future. But without the dynamic, historic, black candidate at the top of the ticket, can Democratic lightning strike twice? That question may be answered today, as Democrat Jim Martin faces Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss in the runoff election for Georgia’s Senate seat.
The closely watched race, together with the death match of a recount in Minnesota between Democrat Al Franken and incumbent senator Norm Coleman, is essential to the Democrats’ quest for 60 seats in the Senate, which would provide the party with bulletproof legislative authority in the 111th Congress. This prospect has the opposition running scared. GOP strategist Dick Morris recently told Republicans that “your whole future depends on” denying Democrats such a majority.
Obama’s effort to win Georgia always seemed a bit farfetched. The state hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since native son Jimmy Carter won it in 1976. In the 30 years since, however, centrist Democratic lawmakers like Sam Nunn, Max Cleland and Zell Miller were able to pull out victories (though Miller has been a de facto Republican since leaving the Senate in 2005). And this year – following the blueprint of DNC chair Howard Dean’s much-discussed 50-state strategy – Obama’s campaign decided to play ball in the traditionally red state, setting up field staff well before the February 5 Democratic primary and keeping them engaged with the task of registering hundreds of new voters, mostly African-American, throughout 2008. The Nation reported in August on the grassroots effort: “We’re chasing people through the park,” said one organiser. “We’re going out onto the corner. This is huge. Huge.”
Though the Georgia push was a bit of a head fake at the presidential level (after making John McCain spend resources there, the national team pulled out in September), Obama’s popular campaign certainly helped Martin get within striking distance of Chambliss (similar downballot dynamics were in play for newly elected senators Jeff Merkley in Oregon and Kay Hagan in North Carolina). Martin’s 47% of the vote on November 4 narrowly denied Chambliss an outright majority and forced today’s runoff.
New polls give the Republican only a slim lead, but a recent Congressional Quarterly study suggests that incumbents tend to gain ground during a revote. Still, Democrats are hoping for a repeat victory. Alex Lofton, a field director for Obama in Georgia before the September pullback, returned to the Peach State in November from Ohio, where most of the Georgia organisers had been sent. Fresh from helping win Indiana for the Democrats, Al Kindle, a Chicago-based political operative who has known Obama personally for years, also headed to Atlanta to try and help Martin compete. A win there will be “my Christmas gift to Obama”, he said.
But for the most part, the euphoric campaign for change has come back to earth, and some harsh political realities. The field staff from the general election is operating at half-strength, compared to the highly choreographed outreach that produced record turnout on November 4. And despite Martin’s last-minute, high profile Atlanta appearance with rappers Ludacris, Young Jeezy and TI, youth voter awareness and enthusiasm have waned, and the ranks of paid field organisers have shrunk to about 100, according to reports. The bulk are now headed either for Washington or for various Tahitian vacations.”
A representative from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee acknowledged the problem. “We definitely anticipate that turnout will be lower than the November election,” she said, comparing this race to House special elections won by Democrats in Louisiana and Mississippi this spring. “But in both of those special races we won. It’s definitely a turnout game, but we are aggressively turning out the vote.” Others were not so optimistic. One young Democratic footsoldier who declined to be identified spoke glumly of Martin’s chances in the perennially conservative state. “I have no illusions,” he said. “We’re probably going to lose.”
Just as Obama’s outsized presence helped at the top of the ticket in November, direct campaigning could make a difference today. Obama cut an ad for Martin during the general election but, whether preoccupied or unwilling, he has kept his powder dry in the runoff. Democratic celebrities like Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, John Lewis and others have headed down to Georgia to fundraise and campaign for Martin, but they have been met with heavyweight Republicans like Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin who support Chambliss – concerned, like Morris, that a filibuster-proof majority could mean lasting exile for the Republican party.
Of course, Democrats and those behind their political agenda could see some virtue in falling short of 60 seats. An almost-sweep could offer moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins or Chuck Hagel the chance to seem conciliatory and bipartisan, rather than part of a permanent underclass in the next Congress.
But getting to 60 is the dream, and the Georgia race the canary in the mine. And while it may be premature to rain on the Democrats’ parade before a single member of their new majority has been sworn in, if Martin loses, his defeat may indicate that future elections – such as the 2010 midterms – will not be the Democratic watersheds that Obama’s win suggests.