Seldom has one election in one state had the dramatic consequences of the Senate runoff in Georgia – a political microburst that has transformed the environment in Washington.
America’s election encore sent Raphael Warnock back to the Senate, bolstered the Democratic majority in the chamber, gave President Joe Biden some breathing room for the next stage of his agenda, shifted the alignment of 24 committees on Capitol Hill, adjusted the political profile of a vital state and sent yet another signal that the power of Donald Trump to shape U.S. politics may be waning.
All that with one runoff election in a state that bled Republican red in 11 of the 15 presidential elections since 1964 and, with Mr. Biden’s contentious victory there in 2020, vaguely hinted at turning swing-state purple if not exactly blue.
“Tuesday it showed it was purple with a hint of red,” said Amy Steigerwalt, a political scientist at Georgia State University.
The re-election victory of Mr. Warnock over his Trump-endorsed challenger, former football star Herschel Walker, in a contest a month after neither candidate secured a majority of the vote in November’s midterm elections, was the result of a high-profile struggle. In an unusual contest in which two Black candidates found themselves in a runoff – a political final round that has roots in Georgia’s history of segregation – the contenders and their allies spent a total of almost US$425-million in a race that reflected broad national trends.
“This election underlined changes in the demographics of the state, and these changes reflect changes across the country,” said Prof. Steigerwalt. “The share of the Black population has grown and there’s an increase in Hispanics and Asian-Americans, and Georgia is getting closer to the threshold where it might not be a white-majority state much longer.”
Moreover, the consequences of Mr. Warnock’s victory spill far beyond the borders of Georgia.
The Senate – which for two years was split 50-50, giving the Democrats a slender advantage because of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s ability to break a tie vote – previously stood as a symbol of America’s political stalemate. The country remains essentially divided, but the 51-49 majority the Democrats will possess when Congress reconvenes next month has enormous implications.
With the chamber split evenly, there were equal rosters of Republicans and Democrats on all Senate committees, where the vital work of drafting and giving preliminary approval to legislation is conducted. That circumstance almost paralyzed the body. Now, with the Democrats holding an actual majority independent of Ms. Harris’s vote, they can give themselves a disproportionate advantage on the powerful Appropriations, Budget, Rules and Ways and Means committees
The effect: No Democratic priority can be watered down, by committee vote or bipartisan compromise, before it reaches the Senate floor. Nor can any favoured Democratic measure be bottled up and thus denied the opportunity of a vote of the full Senate.
This is especially important in the confirmation of judges to be nominated by Mr. Biden. Currently, there are nine federal appeals court vacancies and more than six dozen federal district court vacancies. Beginning next month, the President will have almost complete freedom to put his choices on the bench.
With the 50-50 split in the Senate, Mr. Biden had no cushion for his legislation. The defection of a single Democrat doomed his proposals, a circumstance that moderates Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona exploited repeatedly, sometimes to win concessions from progressives, sometimes – as in the case of immigration legislation now before Congress – to complicate the process enormously.
Acting together, the two will still have the power to thwart Mr. Biden. But if the President, or Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York, can peel off one of them, Mr. Biden can prevail in a chamber where, for 36 years, he represented Delaware.
The Warnock victory provides a cushion of another sort as the Democrats look toward 2024, when three of them run for re-election in states Mr. Trump won two years ago. A 51-49 majority puts the Democrats in slightly less peril in the next round of Senate elections.
Mr. Trump was the dog that did not bark in the runoff. He was an active booster of Mr. Walker. But as the first Republican presidential nominee to lose Georgia in 28 years and as a wannabe kingmaker whose favoured candidates – including primary challengers to Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both of whom rebuffed Mr. Trump’s pleas to overcome his deficit of 12,670 votes in 2020 – flopped in last month’s midterms, he heeded state Republicans’ pleas and stayed far from the fray.
The Warnock victory came against a backdrop of broad GOP victories last month in Georgia – governor, lieutenant-governor, attorney-general, secretary of state, agricultural commissioner, labour commissioner and state superintendent of schools.
“This Warnock win gives some encouragement to Democrats here,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist and a veteran analyst of the state’s electoral profile. “This is the one bright spot for all those who thought that Georgia was a blue state but only saw red in November. It will make it easier to inspire the troops for 2024.”