Update 655 — Georgia Breaks the Tie:
Political, Policy Import of Warnock Win
Senator Raphael Warnock won reelection in Georgia’s runoff this Tuesday, defeating GOP nominee Hershel Walker, football star turned flawed first-time candidate, by almost three points. With Georgia again flashing purple, Democrats have bolstered their claim on a traditionally southern, conservative state. So Warnock’s win is emblematic but also of practical utility.
By holding the seat, Democrats will now have a one-seat majority in the upper chamber, a marked improvement from this Congress’ even split. Instead of entering a power sharing agreement with Republicans, Democrats command majorities on committees, with more resources to move legislation and freedom to confirm nominees. Also this week, Senate Democrats approved their new leadership team with ease and unity, in the face of Senator Sinema, who this morning registered as an independent but will still caucus with Democrats.
In today’s update we cover how Georgia’s election reflects this year’s trends for Democrats and democracy, and what a 51 seat majority means for the Senate.
Good weekends all…
In the 2022 elections, Democrats defied midterm odds. Indeed, this was the first election since 1934 in which no incumbent senator from the president’s party lost reelection. Democrats even picked up a seat with John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. While many factors played into the outcome of these elections, it’s clear that the economy, abortion, and Trump-minded GOP candidates motivated voters to turn out for Democrats in strong numbers. Many Republican candidates endorsed by Trump did not have the usual character or competence of a Senate candidate, which contributed to their historic underperformance. This was particularly conspicuous in Georgia.
Incumbent Senator Warnock ran against Trump-backed Herschel Walker, who was dogged by scandals throughout the race. Warnock focused on kitchen-table issues such as health care costs, infrastructure, jobs, and education, as well as reproductive rights and women’s health. He also contrasted effectively with Walker on character and honesty. This helped Warnock win independent voters and diminished Walker’s support among suburban Republican women. In the governor’s race, Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams faced an uphill battle against popular incumbent Governor Brian Kemp, who distanced himself from Trump, but Warnock’s success largely built upon the great work Abrams and her organization Fair Fight have done over several cycles to register and get Georgians to the polls.
Georgia has produced some of the most expensive Senate races in recent memory. This race was no exception with over $400 million spent collectively. Warnock raised more money than any other federal candidate this cycle, raising over $150 million as of November 16. He outraised Walker two-to-one, giving him an advantage over the airwaves. This high cost is a worrisome new normal if big and dark money often outweighs the voices of the people. Campaign finance reform is critical to level the playing field so that representatives can focus on the people, not fundraising.
Georgia’s elections are particularly costly because of their unique runoff mechanism. When neither candidate gets above 50 percent of the vote, the election automatically goes to a runoff. The runoff election only occurs in two states, Georgia and Louisiana. It is a relic of the Jim Crow era. After the civil rights movement propelled more black voter registration, Georgia sought to dilute their power. Signed into law in 1964, the runoff would allow white voters to coalesce around their preferred candidate if they were originally split amongst several candidates during the general election, thus diminishing black voter strength. The runoff law also contained a literacy test, a Jim Crow relic.
History often reflects the present, and many Georgian voters found it more difficult to vote after Georgia’s recent SB 202, which introduced strict voter ID requirements and constrained access to drop boxes and mail ballots, among other provisions. Early turnout was lower this year compared to last cycle, and voters faced longer lines on election day. The new law changed the runoff to a four-week period after the general election instead of the previous nine.
Voter suppression laws cannot defeat the growth of a more diverse population in Georgia that is contributing to its trending blue. Georgia’s restrictive voting law is emblematic of the larger rollback in voting access across the country. Since 2020, 24 states have passed laws that create more restrictions on voting.
Democrats’ top priority this Congress was to increase access to the ballot box and reform our democracy. The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act would have restored the voting rights act, made voting more accessible, reformed the campaign finance system to empower small donors and shine a light on dark money, prevent partisan gerrymandering, and more to strengthen our elections. However, before comprehensive reform could become law, it was beaten by the anti-democratic filibuster. Restrictive voting laws across the states affirm the need for federal reform that ensures every voice is heard.
A New Senate Majority
Now that the Democrats hold a 51 seat majority in the Senate, they have much more power in the chamber than they did last Congress. With a 50-50 split in the 117th Congress, Democrats and Republicans had a power sharing agreement, which meant equal numbers of members on committees, often requiring the Vice President to cast the 51st vote. She did this 26 times, the third most of any Vice President. Instead of setting the record, now the VP will be free of that obligation and able to focus on more than just the Senate. In the 118th, Democrats will have real control of the Senate, granting them more jurisdiction.
The narrow majority is off to a great start. Yesterday, Senate Democrats voted for their leadership next Congress, and the entire slate was confirmed unanimously. Senator Schumer will stay as leader and Senator Patty Murray will now assume the president pro tempore position.
With committee control, Democrats will have a majority of members and larger staff and budgets, allowing committees to process nominations and legislation at a quicker speed. Some of the issues from an evenly divided Senate, like Republicans boycotting a vote for Federal Reserve nominee Sarah Bloom Raskin, would not occur with Democrats holding the majority. This will be especially important as Biden seeks to nominate more judges and other federal nominees. If a Supreme Court seat opens up the Congress, Democrats will have a smoother path to confirmation.
Democrats also have an advantage when it comes to subpoena and oversight power. Instead of needing bipartisan buy-in, Democrats will be able to subpoena witnesses and information for committee proceedings. This power will be useful, especially when up against the Republican control of the House. Republicans in the House have already indicated they will conduct a series of investigations, many of them unfounded. While Senate Democrats will not be as brazenly partisan as House Republicans, they will be able to set their own record and gather information with ease.
The new majority means every vote isn’t as critical. With 50 votes, Democrats needed every Senator on board and present since the Senate does not have proxy voting. In the 118th, Democrats won’t be imperiled when one Senator is sick. More consequentially, a 51 seat majority weakens the power of some centrists, like Senators Manchin and Sinema. With the extra vote they won’t have as much bargaining power. Moreover, today Sen. Sinema announced she will register as an independent, while still caucusing with Democrats. This will not change Senate dynamics as Sinema will continue caucusing with the Democrats. While the new seat does not provide enough support to get rid of the filibuster, Democrats have gained another pro-democracy, anti-filibuster Senator in Fetterman.
Only Two Years Away…
The new Senate majority and success in Georgia have implications for the next cycle in 2024. Democrats will face a tougher map, with 23 seats to defend compared to Republicans only having 11 seats up for reelection. Having an extra seat helps, but Democrats will have to do more defense with fewer pick up opportunities. However, Democrats will have a good chance to take back the House, after losing it narrowly this cycle. Warnock’s performance also solidifies Georgia as a key swing state in the next presidential election after Biden won it in 2020.
Georgia’s runoff brings this election cycle to a close. With many lessons learned on candidate quality, messaging, and organizing, both parties can turn to governing before the cycle starts up yet again. A divided Congress will spell many challenges as both parties will need to agree on must pass items like government funding and raising the debt ceiling. Legislation will be harder to pass without a trifecta, but a majority in the Senate means nominations and hearings will remain important vehicles for the Democratic agenda. Democrats can continue to share their economic message– that they are on the side of working families and getting things done, building off the success of candidates like Senator Warnock.