Video: Chambliss wins Ga.

updated 12/3/2008 12:48:31 PM ET 2008-12-03T17:48:31

So what does Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss' decisive win -- 57 percent to 43 percent -- over Democrat Jim Martin in Tuesday's runoff election in Georgia mean for President-elect Obama? Simply put, very little. For all the talk of a "realigned" electoral map post-2008, the reality is that Georgia is still a tough sell for any Democrat.

That Obama didn't make himself an overt presence in the race sent a signal that he was not willing to risk his political capital on an underdog. Still, it's notable that he never stayed completely clear of the contest. After all, he lent both his voice (to radio ads and robocalls) and his donors to Martin's effort. What he didn't do, of course, was lend a partisan edge to the contest. His upbeat ads encouraged voters to get to the polls "one more time" and support Martin, who can "help me change Washington." They never even mentioned Chambliss' name.

To be sure, Martin himself was always going to be a tough sell, even to Georgia Democrats. The former state representative had no obvious statewide base or appeal. This was a guy who was simply in the right place at the right time. It's hard to envision how Obama alone could have made him more attractive.

Republicans were happy to make this contest a referendum on Obama; Chambliss consistently warned Georgians of giving the president-elect a "blank check" in Washington. But can Martin's loss really be seen as a repudiation of Obama, given that he'd already lost the state by 5 percentage points?

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And what about the "short coattail" theory -- that without Obama at the top of the ticket in 2010, lots of Democrats are going to be vulnerable? In preparation for this line of attack, House Democratic strategists are already making sure to point out the significant number of House candidates who overperformed Obama's showing in their districts this November, arguing that his effect on downballot races has consistently been overstated. The theory: House Democrats took control of Congress in 2006 without Obama on the ticket and can do just fine on their own in 2010, thank you very much. Even so, there are plenty of Democrats in Congress who owe their victories to strong turnout and support from African Americans and young voters.

Yet it's clear that Obama's pull was missed by Martin. In heavily Democratic DeKalb County, Martin's margin of victory was down 4 points from November. In Fulton (Atlanta), Martin dropped 3 points from his Nov. 4 performance.

It's also important to note, however, that even in November, Martin still wasn't able to match Obama's showing in these key Democratic counties. In Fulton, for example, Martin's 63 percent showing was 4 points lower than Obama's. This suggests that Obama's rising tide was unable to lift all boats.

Chambliss, meanwhile, deserves credit for running a strong effort in the final weeks of the campaign. A quick run through the returns shows Chambliss outperforming his November showing in a number of key GOP counties. For example, he carried suburban Atlanta's Gwinnett County last month with 53 percent. This time, he won the county with 64 percent. In Cobb County, Chambliss improved on his November showing by at least 10 points.

Even so, it's hard to see how, as Sarah Palin suggested at an election eve rally, Chambliss' victory could be a first step to rebuilding the GOP. While a loss would have been demoralizing for the party, a win here is simply a continuation of the status quo. The first step in rebuilding the party would be to start to win seats in, say, the Midwest or Southwest. One big opportunity, for example, would be to knock off Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010. This would have the double impact of picking off a Democrat Republicans love to hate while showing that Republicans can compete in a state where John McCain got walloped.

As for Obama's political capital, the fact is that this is a very popular president-elect who is also very pragmatic. That he didn't come in guns blazing for Martin was not unexpected. But the question remains: What is the threshold for spending all this political capital? Obama has a smart team that knows to protect the goose with the golden egg. But they've got a lot of fights ahead of them. How well they prioritize their role in those fights will be a big challenge.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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