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Saxby Shows Republicans The Way Forward?

I tend to think that we should not be too dismissive of Saxby Chambliss’s win in Georgia tonight. Although the outcome was expected, and although runoffs and special elections sometimes behave in idiosyncratic ways, moving from a 3-point margin of victory on November 4 to a 15-point margin of victory a month later is a significant accomplishment.

Unfortunately, nobody conducted an exit poll of this race, which makes the postmortem a little bit more difficult to conduct. From early voting statistics, it appears that African-American turnout was substantially lower, which no doubt was a significant factor in Martin’s defeat, as roughly 55 percent of his vote on November 4 came from black voters. If black turnout was closer to the 25 percent of the electorate that it was in 2004 rather than the 28 percent of the electorate that it was on November 4, that would cost Martin a net of about 4 points, implying a loss of about 7 points. If it was closer to the 22 percent of the electorate that turned out to vote early, that would have cost Martin a net of 8-9 points, implying a loss of 11-12 points.

But while proportionately lower black turnout tells part of the story, Chambliss also appeared to gain with white voters. In certain ways, this is an awkward time for a Democrat to be running for office. On the one hand, with the imminent end of George W. Bush’s term in office, and the fact that Barack Obama has effectively been serving as shadow president — Obama is generating between two and three times as much news coverage as Bush according to Google traffic metrics — it has already become harder for Democrats to pin our country’s problems on the Republicans. Yes, Bush did damage to the Republican brand that will last for years to come, but it’s the Obama brand that’s strong more so than the generic Democratic one. On the other hand, because Obama hasn’t actually been in office, the Democrats do not yet have any accomplishments to point to. The Democratic message in 2010 will essentially be one of two things…

1. Obama’s accomplished X, Y and Z and showed the country the way forward, let’s give him leaders in Congress who can continue to deliver for the middle class, or,

2. Obama accomplished X, but he couldn’t accomplish Y and Z because the Republicans obstructed those measures to protect the special interests … let’s put partisanship behind us and elect leaders in Congress who can represent the common good.

…neither of those messages really work at the present time — they require the first couple of political hands to be played out, and right now the dealer is still shuffling the cards.

The other noteworthy thing about Chambliss’ post-November 4th campaign is that he ran fairly hard toward the center. Chambliss cut three new ads for the runoff; one was a positive spot that stressed his experience and bipartisanship, the second was a warm and fuzzy and almost completely apolitical Thanksgiving’s greetings message, and the third was a contrast spot that accused Martin and Obama of wanting to increase taxes. This was fairly harmless stuff, not the sort of thing that raises liberal ire nor that associates Chambliss with the Rovian wing of the Republican party. Yes, some of the 527 and RSCC spots were a lot uglier and harder-hitting, but Chambliss cannot wholly be blamed for those, and the spots emanating from the campaign itself were fairly toned down and nonpartisan — a far cry, certainly, from the ugly ads that Chambliss ran against Max Cleland in 2002.

Yes, also, Chambliss may have gotten some mileage out of the argument that his election would block the Democrats from gaining 60 senate seats, but even this message was somewhat cautiously framed — as delivered, for instance, by Sarah Palin:

Senator Chambliss … he’s got that strong independent spirit that we need in DC. […] He doesn’t just run with the Washington herd. Folks, with just one party in control of the House and the Senate and the White House, we need now more than ever public servants who will think for themselves. And faced now with a steep Democratic majority in Congress, Saxby isn’t going to be an easy ‘yes’ vote, and he’s not going to be an automatic ‘no’ vote — he’s going to vote his conscience and do what is right for Georgia and what is right for America.

Palin then goes on to cite some of the usual Republican talking points about taxes, the Second Amendment, energy independence, victory in Iraq, and the sanctity of life, but her tone is very different than when she was campaigning on behalf of John McCain: less personal, less sanctimonious, less reactionary, less dumbed-down.

Famous last words, but I believe that the 2010 election cycle may actually be a fairly substantive, grown-up affair, essentially a battle over who can frame themselves as being more reasonable and bipartisan. Certainly, there will be more than a few exceptions, and just as certainly, it may all be done through gritted teeth — like that Simpsons episode where Itchy and Scratchy sit on the porch and pour one another lemonade. But if the Republicans have realized that it doesn’t help their cause to constantly be behaving like assholes, then bully for them.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.