POLITICS

Democrats Win Control Of U.S. Senate, Thanks To Georgia

Republicans are now the minority in both chambers of Congress.

For the first time in six years, Democrats will control the U.S. Senate — just barely.

Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in Georgia’s high-stakes runoff elections this week.

Democrats will control 50 votes in the 100-member Senate (two independents caucus with the party). When Democrat Kamala Harris takes office on Jan. 20 as vice president, she will be the tie-breaking vote as the Senate’s presiding officer. 

Georgia’s Senate races ended in runoffs after no candidate topped 50% of the vote in multicandidate races held in November. Signifying what was at stake, the Georgia Senate campaigns shattered spending records as the two most expensive races in U.S. history ― combined, more than $830 million was spent on them. Overall, 9 out of the 10 most expensive Senate races in the nation’s history took place this election cycle.

The Democratic wins in the state are a major boost for what President-elect Joe Biden’s administration can potentially accomplish in its first two years.

For one, Democratic control of the Senate will ease the confirmation process for Biden’s Cabinet picks and allow Democrats to control the process of what legislation gets a vote.

The chamber also has enormous power in shaping the nation’s judiciary. Democrats have watched in dismay as the now-outgoing Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has won confirmation of scores of conservative nominees to federal district and appellate courts ― as well as three justices to the nine-member Supreme Court — and blocked a host of legislation from ever getting voted on.

Democrats can also immediately start work on undoing some of the Trump administration’s most recent policies, like cutting workplace safety inspections, rolling back polluting emissions controls and promoting junk health insurance plans. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), walking in the Capitol last summer with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.),
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), walking in the Capitol last summer with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is in line to replace Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as Senate majority leader.

Democrats have already highlighted a packed agenda they would like to push through Congress — including legislation addressing health care, climate change, infrastructure and police reform.

Their first order of business, however, likely will be a bid to pass another COVID-19 relief package. Biden and Democrats have promised to push for $2,000 in direct payments to Americans who meet certain economic criteria — a proposal McConnell systematically blocked as the last Congress ended in favor of checks totaling only $600.

It was Democrats’ closing message to Georgians: a vow to pass immediate relief as the pandemic rages on in the United States.

“Their election will put an end to the block in Washington on the $2,000 stimulus check,” Biden said at a rally in Atlanta.

That said, Democrats’ path to retaking the Senate wasn’t an easy one, and they now hold the smallest margin of power possible.

A potential dilemma facing the new Democratic leadership of the Senate will be the future of the filibuster, a Senate procedural rule that requires 60 votes to pass significant legislation. The use of the filibuster has been weakened over time ― it no longer comes into play for Cabinet appointments and judicial appointments ― but many Democrats would like to shelve it completely. Others, though, have hesitated to embrace that view.

With such a thin hold on power, that means Democrats will still have to overcome major opposition from their Republican colleagues in order to fully enact their agenda.

And Republicans know Democrats’ majority is on shaky ground. Democrats lost control of the Senate in 2014, after Republicans ousted Democratic incumbents in North Carolina, Arkansas and Colorado, and swept open seats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. 

In 2018, even as the GOP ceded its House majority to Democrats, Republicans picked up seats in North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri. 

It helped Democrats that the 2020 Senate map put Republicans on the defensive. The GOP had to defend upward of 10 competitive seats, while Democrats were only in real danger of losing two incumbents. The sheer number of high-profile candidates stretched Republicans’ resources thin.

Democrats also had a strong class of candidates, including popular former governors in Colorado and Montana, as well as famed former astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona.

Still, hopes among Democrats that they would pick up several seats were thwarted, even as Biden defeated incumbent Donald Trump in the presidential race. In the November vote, Democrats were left especially disappointed that they failed to defeat Republican Sens. Susan Collins in Maine and Thom Tillis in North Carolina.

Biden’s team sees their wins in Georgia as a new path forward for Democrats in building a new majority. The party will have several opportunities to expand their hold on the Senate, but they’ll have to wait until 2022 for now.