Republicans breathed relief and Democrats sighed regret as Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a first-term Georgia Republican, won reelection in a December runoff with Democratic challenger Jim Martin. The Republican senator's win dashed Democratic hopes for a 60-seat majority and a filibuster-proof Senate that would have paved easier passage for President-elect Barack Obama's agenda next year.
A reverse Obama-effect may have contributed to Chambliss' win in the Georgia runoff: With an avalanche of Obama supporters driving high Democratic turnout to the polls on Nov. 4, Chambliss led Martin by 3 percent and failed to reach the majority required to avoid a runoff. In the December contest, Chambliss beat Martin by 15 percentage points.
Voter turnout dropped by 50 percent in the runoff and plummeted in at least one heavily black county that backed Obama in November. "For a lot of African-American voters, the real election was last month," Emory University political scientist Merle Black told The New York Times. "The importance of electing the first African-American president in history generated enormous enthusiasm. Everything else was anticlimactic."
Still, the party enjoys at least a 58-seat majority in the Senate, their largest since the late 1970s. Democrats may pick up an additional seat in Minnesota, where a recount between Democrat Al Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman remained too close to call in early December.
Without a so-called "supermajority," Democrats hope to peel off enough moderate Republican votes to pass a bevy of proposals on issues like the economy, health care, and climate change. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., touted federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research as a top priority in the first 100 days of the new Congress. President George W. Bush vetoed such funding in 2006 and 2007, but Obama says he will support it.
Meanwhile, Republicans began regrouping after their stinging November defeat and elected staunch conservatives to key leadership posts in the House: Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia won an uncontested bid for the No. 2 GOP spot, and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana won an unchallenged bid for the House Republican Conference chairmanship, the No. 3 post. Both congressmen boast conservative voting records, and Pence vowed: "I'm going to continue to be my same old conservative self."
Pence-who describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order"-flexed his conservative muscle early, refusing to endorse House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, in his successful bid to retain his top GOP leadership post. Boehner drew the ire of conservatives in September when he backed the $700 billion economic bailout. Pence opposed it and led an effort to garner Republican opposition, saying it violated principles of free market and limited government. Pence has also led efforts to rescind federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Cantor disappointed some conservatives by voting for the bailout package after trying to craft a GOP alternative, but he says he would resist similar proposals in the future, including a bailout for automobile makers. The 45-year-old congressman is the only Jewish Republican in the House, a staunch defender of Israel, and a rising star in the party. Pundits mentioned Cantor's name as a possible vice presidential pick for McCain last summer.
Coming back from a Democratic resurgence may be easier in the House than the Senate: Despite losing at least 20 seats in November, the leadership elections of Pence and Cantor point to a conservative core in the House that may be harder for Democrats to overcome. Pence hopes that the GOP bruising in both chambers will send Republicans back to the political drawing board: "There's nothing quite as clarifying as the wilderness."