ATLANTA - Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss handed the GOP a firewall against Democrats eager to flex their newfound political muscle in Washington, winning a bruising runoff battle Tuesday night that had captured the national limelight.
Chambliss' victory thwarted Democrats' hopes of winning a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. It came after a bitter monthlong runoff against Democrat Jim Martin that drew political luminaries from both parties to the state and flooded the airwaves with fresh attack ads weeks after campaigns elsewhere had ended.
Minnesota - where a recount is under way - now remains the only unresolved Senate contest in the country. But the stakes there are significantly lower now that Georgia has put a supermajority out of reach of Democrats.
With 96 percent of the precincts reporting, Chambliss captured 57 percent to Martin's 43 percent. Chambliss' win is a rare bright spot for Republicans in a year where they lost the White House as well as seats in the House and the Senate.
"This is a rare tidbit of good news for a Republican Party reeling from November's losses," said CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs. "While it may seem to have stopped the bleeding, the party remains in the kind of minority status it has not seen since the early 1990s. A runoff victory in a strong Southern state is thin thread upon which to build a political comeback. At the same time, the result is a caution signal to President-elect Obama that his election mandate has its limits."
Martin called Chambliss to concede before 10 p.m., then emerged to tell supporters as his voice cracked: "For me and my family and campaign team and all of you this is a sad moment."
Chambliss declared victory before about 500 cheering Republicans in Cobb County saying he'd hoped to win the race outright on Nov. 4. During the general election, it was a three-way race for the seat and neither Martin nor Chambliss was able to secure the necessary 50 percent to avoid the runoff.
"But you know, God works in strange ways," Chambliss said. "What we have seen over the last four weeks has truly been remarkable."
Chambliss' mantra on the campaign trail was simple: His re-election was critical to prevent Democrats in Washington from having a blank check. Chambliss, 65, had angered some conservatives with his vote for the $700 billion bailout of the financial services industry and his early support in 2007 for the guest worker provision in President George W. Bush's immigration bill. But fearful of unchecked Democratic dominance, some came back into the GOP fold Tuesday.