With 77 percent of the precincts reporting, Chambliss led Tuesday night with 55 percent of the vote to Democratic challenger Jim Martin’s 41 percent and Libertarian Allen Buckley’s 4 percent.
The campaign started with most observers expecting Chambliss to win with little trouble as a conservative incumbent in a reliably Republican state. Polls showed him comfortably ahead until the financial crisis captured voters’ attention about four weeks ago, and his lead quickly eroded.
Until then, national Democrats had put few resources toward Martin’s behalf. After Chambliss voted for the $700 billion financial-services industry bailout, Democrats from across the country and the national party pumped money in, allowing Martin to increase his television advertising.
But Martin said the ad aired by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee about Chambliss’ support for the national sales tax wasn’t helpful.
“It was just a distraction from what the central issue is, which is how bad the economy is,” Martin said.
That ad backfired with some voters like Don Frisbee of Thomaston because it didn’t mention the senator’s plan to eliminate income taxes at the same time.
“The one thing that really soured me about Martin was when he started running ads about how Chambliss wants to add a 23-percent sales tax, not bringing into consideration that that was part of his backing of the Fair Tax,” Frisbee said. “Telling a half-truth is the same as telling a lie, as far as I’m concerned.”
Voter Frances DeWitt of Savannah said the ads didn’t change her impression of Chambliss or her vote for him.
“I have known him for a long time (through community and church groups), and have watched him and just trust him,” she said.
When it comes to the overall economy, Chambliss’ most controversial decision was his vote for a $700-billion bailout of the financial-services industry.
Chambliss acknowledged that people had been upset with him over the bailout vote but they were coming to understand he had to do something.
“There are certain things you can control in a campaign and certain things you cannot,” he said Tuesday night. “We could not control the economy. That has played a huge factor in our race.”
The bailout wasn’t the only issue in the economic race, though. Martin kept painting himself as the champion of the middle class, including his support for the tax cuts proposed by Barack Obama.
One black voter for Martin said she was in his corner because she likes his stance on behalf of the middle class.
“It’s usually been that a lot of people that vote Republican are making over $225,000 a year,” said Bukekia Crawford of Roswell. “A lot of the Democrats are identified more with the middle-class income.”
The presence of a third candidate, Buckley the Libertarian, created the possibility of a runoff between Chambliss and Martin if neither got more than 50 percent. With Democrats aiming for 60 seats in the Senate so they would have enough votes to stop a filibuster, a runoff here could have brought all the attention and financial resources of both national parties.