Saxby Chambliss’s Victory Shows Georgia Democrats Don’t Hate Him Like the National Party Does

National Democrats never forgave Chambliss for Max Cleland's defeat, Bob Kemper writes.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss waves to supporters with his wife Julianne after claiming victory at Republican Victory Celebration in Atlanta, Georgia.
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The Democrats failed to win a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia Tuesday and lost with it their hopes for a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber. So it's understandable that disappointment would be the order of the day. But no one should be expressing surprise.

Any claims that Georgia's incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss could have been unseated if only President-elect Barack Obama had taken out a few hours from his transition planning to go stump in Atlanta for the little-known Democratic candidate, Jim Martin, should be dismissed before they're fully uttered. 

Even the Obama magic would have failed to change events in Georgia. (The man himself, juggernaut that he was, lost the Peach State by more than 200,000 votes to Republican John McCain.)

The Georgia race was not winnable for Democrats because it wasn't ever merely an election about turning another Republican Senate seat blue. It was never about how much money a national party could throw at one race in just a few short weeks. And it wasn't about putting up a firewall in the Senate to keep Democrats in Washington from running amok.

Defeating Chambliss, for national Democrats, was always about revenge. But that was insufficient reason for Georgians to oust him, because they, including Democrats, never hated their senator with the same intensity that Democrats from other parts of the country have and do.

For six years, Democrats have loudly decried Chambliss for the race he ran in 2002 against the then incumbent Democrat Max Cleland, including a TV ad Chambliss aired that showed pictures of Cleland along with photos of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Democrats from across the country blamed the ad, which ran sparingly late in the campaign, for Cleland's upset and charged that the ad questioned the patriotism of a highly decorated soldier who lost three limbs to a grenade during the Vietnam War.

For years, Chambliss was routinely featured in Democratic fundraising letters as an example of just how low Republicans would stoop in their quest for power. In 2007, when Democrats were drafting their lists of targets in the upcoming election, Chambliss was consistently among the top three.

But Chambliss and the consultant who created the controversial ad for him, Tom Perdue, insist to this day that the ad was never about Cleland's patriotism. Instead, they said, it fairly raised the question of Cleland's judgment on post-9/11 national security matters, including his opposition to President Bush's plan to create a Department of Homeland Security.

And, much to the dismay of national Democrats, voters in Georgia have insisted in interviews over the years that Chambliss's ad never swayed them to oppose Cleland to the extent national Democrats claimed. Many couldn't remember the ad, and some say they never saw it.

The reason voters in Georgia ousted Cleland in 2002 had less to do with Chambliss or his campaign tactics than with Cleland himself, according to these voters.

Cleland lost in 2002 primarily because he had lost touch with his constituents. Georgians came to view him as arrogant because he spent so much of his time working the national platform given to him by Democrats hungry for symbolic proof of their commitment to national security. Many felt Cleland wasn't paying enough attention to their more mundane but critical needs, like problems with Social Security or other federal agencies.

Then there was Cleland's vote against Bush's plans for a Department of Homeland Security, which did disappoint Georgia voters.

Bush hadn't even wanted a new department. He opposed the department when congressional Democrats proposed creating it. But as the election neared, Bush reversed himself and proposed that the department should be created after all—with one caveat that he knew Democrats could never support: None of the new department's workers could belong to a union. A national security apparatus had to be nimble, and unionization would hinder U.S. defenses, Bush argued.

Democrats, including Cleland, fell all over themselves reassuring their union supporters that they would never let that bill pass. When they voted against Bush's bill, of course, it was a political victory for both the president and his party. Explaining the nuances of labor language in a federal bill in the span of a bumper sticker during an election year is not the easiest thing to do.