Democrats View Georgia Race as Revenge for ’02

Posted October 20, 2008 at 6:34pm

Forget the filibuster-proof Senate majority, the Democratic Party’s resurgence in the South or even the simple satisfaction of wresting a once-safe seat from the GOP’s hands. For many national Democrats, the possibility of defeating Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) this year can be summed up in two words: Max Cleland.

Then-Sen. Cleland, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee, lost to Chambliss in 2002 following a bitter campaign that featured attacks on the incumbent’s patriotism and accusations that he was soft on national defense and terrorism. The defeat stung Democrats deeply, and to this day his name alone is a powerful motivator for many in the party.

“There are few Democrats that would cry a single tear for this loss,” one veteran Senate Democratic aide said.

“It does certainly get people fired up, not just nationally but also in Georgia,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Miller said, noting that Cleland cut an ad for Chambliss’ opponent, former state Rep. Jim Martin (D), early in the campaign cycle.

To Democrats, Miller said, Cleland’s defeat represented the ugliest form of politics, and those wounds have never healed. Cleland was “an American hero who was slimed by the most vicious kind of politics imaginable. … That is something that a lot of Georgians haven’t forgotten,” Miller said.

Indeed, DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch sent out a fundraising e-mail to Democratic supporters on Saturday titled “This One’s for Max” in which he wrote that “I have never forgotten Saxby Chambliss’ revolting and repulsive hit piece equating Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to triple-amputee war hero Max Cleland in 2002.”

It is also worth noting that Democratic consultant Jim Jordan is running the DSCC’s independent expenditure arm this cycle and is responsible for the bulk of the committee’s advertising decisions. Jordan was executive director of the DSCC during the 2002 cycle.

Cleland was also on the trail in Kentucky this weekend, where he was campaigning with Democrat Bruce Lunsford, who has pulled within single digits of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Chambliss spokeswoman Michelle Grasso said the lawmaker is uninterested in fighting old political battles and is instead focused on making his case to voters.

“We’re focused on 2008. We’re focused on the Senator’s re-election campaign. We’re focused on his leadership and what he’s done for the state over the last six years,” Grasso said.

Martin and Chambliss, who participated in debates aired on two networks in the state on Sunday, continue to run neck and neck in polling, including a new Democracy Corps poll released Monday. The poll, conducted Oct. 15-19, showed Chambliss narrowly ahead of the Democratic upstart, 48 percent to 44 percent, just within the poll’s 4-point margin of error.

Those findings are consistent with a string of recent polls in the state that have shown a marked tightening of the race in recent weeks.