Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R)
Elected: 2002, term expires 2014, 2nd term.
Born: Nov. 10, 1943, Warrenton, NC .
Education: U. of GA, B.A. 1966, U. of TN, J.D. 1968.
Family: Married (Julianne); 2 children.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1994-2002.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1968–94.
Saxby Chambliss, the senior senator from Georgia, was elected in 2002 and won his first re-election to the Senate in 2008. He earlier served four terms in the House. Chambliss grew up in Shreveport, La., the son of an Episcopalian minister, and graduated from the University of Georgia. He practiced business and agricultural law in Moultrie starting in 1968. In 1992, he ran for the U.S. House and lost the Republican primary. In 1994, he ran again and was the sole Republican candidate, while Democrats had a multicandidate contest. The winner was Craig Mathis, the 32-year-old son of Rep. Dawson Mathis (1971-81). Chambliss won 63%-37%. Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia saw that Chambliss got the committee assignments he needed most—Armed Services, to look after Robins Air Force Base, and Agriculture, to protect subsidies for peanut farmers.
|Saxby Chambliss (R)||1,228,033||(57%)|
|Jim Martin (D)||909,923||(43%)|
|Saxby Chambliss (R)||1,867,097||(50%)||($15,692,294)|
|Jim Martin (D)||1,757,393||(47%)||($7,508,505)|
|Allen Buckley (Lib)||127,923||(3%)||($28,666)|
|Saxby Chambliss (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (53%), 2000 House (59%), 1998 House (62%), 1996 House (53%), 1994 House (63%)
When then-Budget Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, announced his retirement in July 1999, Chambliss started a campaign for the post. In July 2000, after Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell died suddenly, Chambliss considered running in the November election to replace him. House Speaker Dennis Hastert persuaded him to stay in the House, and Chambliss came away feeling he would get the Budget chairmanship. But he had competition from Jim Nussle of Iowa. The Republican leadership ultimately picked Nussle, and as consolation, Chambliss got an Agriculture subcommittee chairmanship. Hastert also made him chairman of the Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security.
Chambliss got a second chance to run for the Senate in 2002. Democratic incumbent Max Cleland had won the seat only narrowly, 49%-48%, in 1996, and Georgia was trending Republican, evident in George W. Bush’s 55%-43% victory there in 2000. Chambliss was not an early favorite to win. Cleland had a compelling biography. After college he volunteered for the Army and in 1967 went to Vietnam, where he lost both legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion. He served on the Armed Services Committee and had a moderate voting record. But in 2001 and 2002, he tended to stick with the close-knit Democratic Caucus while his new colleague, Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, dissented vociferously on issues from the tax cut to the Department of Homeland Security personnel rules. On the Republican side, Chambliss won the August 2002 primary 61%-27%. He set out to convince voters that Cleland was “too liberal for Georgia.”
Cleland’s two major strengths—his sacrifice in Vietnam and support from the highly popular Miller—seemed formidable. Cleland backers noted that Chambliss had received four student deferments in the 1960s and then was found ineligible for service because of a bad knee. Miller, in ads, told voters of Cleland’s “rock-solid Georgia values.” But that did not deter Chambliss from sharp attacks. He ran a series of ads mentioning Cleland’s opposition to an amendment banning aid for schools that barred the Boy Scouts, his votes against the “partial-birth” abortion ban, and his support of school clinics passing out morning-after pills without parental permission—all ending with an astounded announcer asking, “Why would he do that?”
But probably the most important issue was homeland security. Cleland stood with other Senate Democrats in opposing flexibility in work rules in the new department. The dispute occupied the Senate for much of October 2002 and prevented passage of the bill to create the department. Chambliss ran an ad showing pictures of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and Cleland, and saying that Cleland “voted against the president’s vital homeland security efforts 11 times.” Against this, Cleland’s ads attacking Chambliss for opposing an increase in the minimum wage and for cutting student loans were weak stuff. Plus, Cleland’s impressive record in Vietnam did not inoculate him against charges that he had given short shrift to homeland security. The tide of opinion, as measured by very late polls, was moving toward Chambliss. Bush visited the state three times on his behalf. Chambliss won 53%-46%, a much bigger victory than just about anyone expected. Chambliss carried metro Atlanta 52%-46%, running ahead of Republican gubernatorial candidate Sonny Perdue, and he carried the rest of Georgia 54%-46%.
In the Senate, Chambliss established a mostly conservative voting record. (He also garnered a reputation for a great golf game. He has been rated the second-best golfer in the Senate behind Nevada Republican John Ensign, with a 6.5 handicap.)
When Republicans were in power, he was the chairman of the immigration subcommittee of Judiciary, and in 2003 succeeded in passing a law modifying some visas so that international companies who bring in foreign employees cannot shop them out to other employers. He continued to be favorable to firms seeking more visas for high-tech foreign employees. Initially, he was favorable to Bush’s proposal for a guest-worker program, at least for farmworkers, but he opposed a controversial provision to give illegal workers a process to achieve citizenship.
In the spring of 2007 he and his Georgia GOP colleague Johnny Isakson—who had known each other since their days as classmates at the University of Georgia—worked together in a bipartisan coalition to fashion a comprehensive immigration bill. For that they were booed at the May 2007 Republican state convention. Chambliss argued that Georgia was the No. 1 destination for illegal border crossers and that the state’s agricultural industry needed a guest worker program. They got a provision sponsored by Isakson requiring that the border be secured before the guest worker program could begin. When Majority Leader Harry Reid brought the bill to the floor in late June, Chambliss and Isakson opposed allowing the legislation to move forward unless a separate appropriation bill for border security was passed.
On the Armed Services Committee, Chambliss has paid close attention to the needs of Georgia military bases and defense contractors. In 2006, he moved successfully to reverse plans to cut back on procurement of the F-22 Raptor, produced by Lockheed Martin. He worked with Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia to get new software facilities for Robins Air Force Base. He also sponsored legislation that reduced the retirement age for National Guard members in proportion with overseas deployments. Chambliss supported the Bush administration on Iraq, but in 2007 he showed his frustration, telling the Macon Telegraph there were “a lot of bad decisions” in the war in Iraq. He was one of 14 senators who voted against the nomination of George Casey as Army chief of staff. However, he consistently voted against cutting off funding of Bush’s troop surge.
In 2005, Chambliss became chairman of the Agriculture Committee—a remarkable feat considering he’d been in the Senate such a short time. He resisted demands to impose income caps on wealthy farmers and budget cuts in cotton and other commodity programs important to Georgia. When Republicans lost the majority in 2006, he became the ranking Republican on the committee. He worked on the 2008 farm bill with Democratic Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, striving to keep programs at existing levels. In bipartisan negotiations in 2006 and 2007, he added incentives to the bill for cellulosic ethanol, made from switchgrass and pine trees that are plentiful in south Georgia. He supported the legislation that passed the Senate in December 2007, and later voted to override Bush’s veto of the bill.
In July 2008, as Congress was responding to high gas prices, Chambliss and Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota assembled a group of 10 senators to put together a bipartisan energy bill. Their legislation, unveiled as Congress adjourned in August, included offshore oil drilling from Virginia to Georgia, measures to encourage building of additional nuclear power plants, and more tax credits for biofuels and wind and solar energy. It was attacked by influential conservative radio talk host Rush Limbaugh, but Chambliss persisted.
Georgia Republicans’ success this decade convinced many that Chambliss was a shoo-in for re-election in 2008, but he insisted throughout the campaign cycle that he expected a close race. In 2007, DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones, an African-American Democrat, announced he would run for the seat, as did WSB-TV investigative reporter Dale Cardwell. Democrat Barack Obama’s smashing 66%-31% victory in the state’s Feb. 5, 2008, presidential primary and the high black turnout convinced many Democratic leaders that they had a chance to win the seat. Conservatives were also disgruntled with Chambliss’s stands on immigration and the farm bill. In March 2008, Democrat Jim Martin got into the contest. He was little known but had a long résumé: freshman class president at the University of Georgia, a stint as a military intelligence officer in Vietnam, a member of the state House in the 1980s and 1990s, and head of the state human resources department. He was promptly endorsed by former first lady Rosalynn Carter, former Gov. Roy Barnes, Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, and state House Minority Leader DuBose Porter. He also raised substantially more money than Jones or Cardwell.
Chambliss was unopposed in the GOP primary. In the July 15 Democratic primary, Jones led with 40% of the vote, but he failed to get 50% to avoid a runoff. Martin was second with 34%, while Cardwell got 16%. In the August 5 runoff, without the presidential contest in play, there was a huge drop-off in turnout, and Martin won 60%-40%. Jones failed to carry his base of DeKalb County. Martin’s victory gave national Democrats a plausible nominee, and the Obama campaign’s registration and turnout efforts gave Democrats the confidence that African-Americans would be a higher percentage of the electorate than in the past. Martin pounded away at Bush, and linked Chambliss to the by-then-unpopular president’s policies. Chambliss took pains to point out that he differed with Bush on immigration, the Medicare prescription drug bill, and the farm bill.
After the financial crisis hit in mid-September, some polls showed the race to be very close, with Chambliss well under 50%. When Chambliss and Sen. Isakson, operating as usual in tandem, voted for the $700 billion bailout of the financial market on October 1, Martin responded with ads denouncing their votes. Chambliss campaigned hard and ultimately outspent Martin, $16 million to $7.5 million, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other Democratic groups made up much of the difference. Georgia law requires a candidate to get 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff. In 1992, the stipulation had prevented incumbent Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler from winning in November, and he was beaten in the December runoff by Republican Paul Coverdell. That scenario seemed to unfold again as the votes were counted in November. Chambliss led Martin by 110,000 votes, but won just 49.8% of the vote to Martin’s 46.8%, falling 9,146 votes short of winning without a runoff.
Some dissatisfaction among conservatives may be inferred from the results: Chambliss ran 182,000 votes behind Republican presidential nominee John McCain; Martin ran 87,000 votes behind Obama. African-Americans, who were 28% of voters (and nearly two-thirds of whom were women) voted 93%-4% for Martin. Whites voted 70%-26% for Chambliss. Chambliss carried young voters 47%-46%, winning young whites by a wide margin. He carried the elderly 50%-48%. The biggest drop-offs in Chambliss’s percentages from 2002 were in metro Atlanta counties with rising black populations—Rockdale, Douglas, Clayton, Henry, and Newton—or a growing Latino population, as in Gwinnett County. Chambliss actually increased his percentages in north Georgia, perhaps because former governor and senator Zell Miller, a north Georgia native who supported Cleland in 2002, this time loudly backed Chambliss.
The runoff came four weeks later, on December 2. The national parties and allied groups pumped in at least $5 million. The Obama campaign kept open its 25 field offices and sent 75 more organizers to help Martin. National Republicans sent in operatives to work for Chambliss. National political figures streamed in: McCain, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Arkansas’s Mike Huckabee, Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney on the Republican side, and former President Clinton, former Vice President Gore, and Democratic television commentator Donna Brazile on the Democratic side. Obama taped a radio ad and robo-calls.
This was a battle of turnout, and the signs for Democrats were ominous. While 35% of early voters before the November election were black, only 23% of early voters for the December runoff were. Overall, turnout in the runoff was only 57% of that for the general election, and all indications were that the drop-off was greater than average among African-Americans, left-leaning students, and other typically Democratic constituencies. Only 2.1 million Georgians voted, far behind the 3.7 million in November, and not much more than the 2 million who voted in the off-year 2002 election. Chambliss won 57%-43%, with percentages 8% to 12% higher than in November in the outer Atlanta suburbs and in north Georgia.