Obama Should Stay Away From Georgia

Washington Matters

Obama Should Stay Away From Georgia

On Dec. 2, Georgians will vote in a runoff between incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin. With a Libertarian candidate taking almost 4% of the vote on Nov. 4, Chambliss fell just short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff under state law. John McCain, who criticized Chambliss six years ago for vicious ads that helped him unseat Max Cleland, is campaigning there today, and Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and a host of other GOP luminaries (probably even Sarah Palin) will be stumping for Chambliss. Martin, meanwhile, has asked Obama to come on his behalf. But that would be a huge mistake for the president-elect.

The campaigns are already in a rough fight, with Republicans running ads saying a Chambliss defeat will give Democrats the 60 votes they need to rubberstamp the will of Obama, who, according to Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun, is planning a Marxist dictatorship. (Martin won't be the 60th vote unless Democrats pick up the undecided seats in Alaska and Minnesota). Martin's supporters are trying to appeal to Obama's voters and Georgia's self-interest, arguing both that Obama needs help in his quest to change Washington and that Georgians are better off with a Democratic senator who is in the majority party.

Obama is doing what he can to help. He's lent his considerable organization to Martin and is bringing in more than 100 volunteers from neighboring states to help turn out the vote. He'll probably cut some campaign ads for Martin and maybe make some video appearances.

But a trip to Georgia is another matter entirely. In the end, Obama has little to gain and everything to lose. So far, he is doing a reasonably good job of staying above the partisan fray, and he needs to keep doing that if he is to have any chance to achieve a level of bipartisanship. A campaign trip now would undercut that. He should remember what happened to Democrats under similar circumstances in 1992. President-elect Bill Clinton campaigned for Sen. Wyche Fowler in a Georgia runoff, only to ratchet up partisan resentments and have his reputation tarnished when Fowler lost.


Even with that object lesson in mind, Obama will probably keep his options open. If Democrats do manage to win in Minnesota and Alaska, a trip to Georgia will become excruciatingly tempting, especially if Martin's odds improve. But even then it'll be a very high risk roll of the dice.

Chambliss has to be the favorite in this red state, which voted for McCain over Obama, 52% to 47%. Martin trailed Chambliss by 3%, and only came close because of the higher than normal turnout among Democrats, especially African-Americans. Only 23% of whites in Georgia voted for Obama, a smaller proportion than every state but Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. 

But Martin may have a better chance than some think. As the incumbent, Chambliss may have reached the pinnacle of his support, plus Martin may get more attention from voters who skipped the contest when the presidential race overshadowed the campaign. And while Martin got 85,000 fewer votes than Obama on Nov. 4, Chambliss got 140,000 fewer than McCain.