Last month Democrats secured control of the US Senate, keeping their fragile hold on power with 50 seats and vice president Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Yet winning the Georgia runoff election on Tuesday would deliver Democrats more than just a single Senate seat: it would finally give them an outright majority.
The contest between Democratic senator Raphael Warnock and his scandal-plagued and Trump-backed Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, will determine whether the Democrats retain their 50-50 majority in the Senate, the narrowest possible balance of power, or whether they will expand it.
In the weeks since the November midterm elections, when Warnock and Walker failed to clear the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff, Democrats and Republicans have spent tens of millions of dollars and dispatched their top surrogates to Georgia in an all-out effort to win the seat. Early voter turnout has been especially high and polls show a close contest.
Gaining one more seat in the Senate would have far-reaching implications for Democrats, both politically and procedurally. As Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer wrote in an email to supporters: “Having 50 seats is great, but having 51 is even better.”
With a 51st seat, Schumer could assume greater control over the upper chamber, making governing easier and more expedient than it is currently in the evenly-split Senate.
In early 2021, victories by Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the state’s twin runoffs delivered Democrats control of a 50-50 Senate with Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Schumer then spent weeks negotiating a power-sharing agreement with the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, which delayed the confirmations of the newly-inaugurated Joe Biden’s nominees.
The even-divide extended to the committees, where members frequently deadlocked over nominees or legislation, requiring additional maneuvering to advance them to the floor. Should Warnock win, Democrats would hold majorities on the committee and could use that power to move nominations or other legislative business on a party-line vote.
“We would go back to what we usually see in the Senate,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. “If all of the Democrats on the committee wanted something to happen, they would be able to just vote for it and they wouldn’t have to jump through extra hoops.”
Reynolds said it would also give the party “more breathing room”. With just 50 senators, any sudden vacancy or absence risks leaving Democrats without a functioning majority, as happened in January, when senator Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico suffered a stroke ahead of the supreme court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson. Luján made a full recovery and returned to the Senate in time to confirm Jackson to the court, but it underscored the precarious nature of Democrats’ power.
An additional vote would also give the party wiggle room to override the objections of a single senator. For two years, the Democrats’ agenda seemed to hinge on the support of one man: Joe Manchin, a centrist from conservative West Virginia. In negotiations, Manchin used the narrow margin as leverage to extract concessions on major legislation and forced Democrats to significantly scale back the president’s signature health and climate package.
In 2024, Manchin faces an uphill battle to hold onto his seat in a state Donald Trump won by a wide margin, which could make the senator even more determined to showcase his political independence.
Likely to remain in place, even with a 51st seat, is the Senate filibuster. Despite mounting calls from across the party to weaken the rule to protect voting rights and codify Roe v Wade, Democrats do not have the support of 50 senators to do so. Manchin and his Democratic colleague, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, oppose changes to the filibuster, which imposes a 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation. Democrats would have needed to gain at least two additional senators to overcome their resistance and even then, such legislation would be unlikely to advance in a Republican-controlled House.
Without a majority in the House, Democrats’ streak of legislating will all but certainly grind to a halt. In the senate, Democrats’ priority will be to confirm federal judges and executive branch appointees nominated by the president. Here again having a one-seat cushion would help Democrats bypass a degree of obstinance within their ranks, in contrast to earlier this year when one of Biden’s nominees to the Federal Reserve was forced to withdraw her candidacy after Manchin announced his opposition.
Holding Warnock’s seat would also have longer-term political implications. Democrats face a daunting political map in 2024, when 21 senators who caucus with the party face reelection, including three who represent states Donald Trump won in 2020.
“Winning or losing this race isn’t just about whether or not it puts Democrats at 50 or 51 for the next two years,” said Mary Small, national advocacy director at Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group with affiliates across the country. “It also locks in the seat for the next six years in a way that will shape the composition of the Senate in future Congresses as well.”
Small said the party’s success in 2024 will depend in part on their ability to successfully implement and communicate all they accomplished when they held control of Congress during the first two years of Biden’s presidency. Key to that effort, she said, is the vice president, who has had to remain close to Washington in the event she is needed to break a tie.
Having an extra vote in the Senate will free Harris, allowing her to travel even when the chamber expects a party-line vote. In her role as president of the Senate, Harris has broken 26 ties, the most for any vice president in a single-term.
“Not having the vice president tied to DC all the time as a tie-breaking vote is another sort of overlooked piece of why senator Warnock’s win will be so important,” Small said, adding: “The ability of the executive branch to have high-profile people out there telling that story of what was accomplished will be a critical part of what [Democrats] need to do heading into 2024.”
For the voters in Georgia, the contest is above all a matter of representation. On Tuesday, they will decide if they are pleased with Warnock, a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr once preached, and the state’s first Black senator, or if they prefer Walker, the Black political newcomer and football legend backed by Donald Trump. Turnout among Black voters and women has been notably high during the early voting period, which Democrats have interpreted as an encouraging sign.
Two years ago, Georgia, a one-time Republican stronghold, voted for Biden and then weeks later delivered Democrats control of the Senate. Shortly after arriving in the Senate, the state’s newly-elected senators, Warnock and Ossoff, helped Democrats pass a massive coronavirus relief package that included stimulus checks to American families, which they had pledged to deliver if elected.
Progressive organizers say another statewide victory for Democrats would reaffirm Georgia’s status as a presidential battleground and validate the work they have done over the past decade to turn the state blue.
“Georgia voters know exactly what’s going on,” Hillary Holley, a leader with the coalition Georgia Organizers for Active Transformation and the executive director of Care in Action, told reporters. “They know what the stakes are, and they want Warnock to remain representing them for six additional years.”