Scramble for the Senate: Georgia
Scramble for the Senate: Georgia

Two months after the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the scram­ble for con­trol of the Unit­ed States Sen­ate is final­ly over. Georgia’s Repub­li­cans played dirty, with cyn­i­cal vot­er sup­pres­sion, attempts by Don­ald Trump to sub­vert results across the coun­try, and relent­less neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing – but ulti­mate­ly, none of it was suc­cess­ful. Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both beat their Repub­li­can oppo­nents – with large enough mar­gins to avoid a recount.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the news of vic­to­ry was over­shad­owed by events in the nation’s cap­i­tal, as a vio­lent far-right mob over­ran the Capi­tol build­ing in an attempt to over­turn November’s elec­tion results and keep Don­ald Trump in office.

Despite the dark events in D.C., the out­come in Geor­gia gives rea­son to hope for the future. Both sen­a­­tors-elect are ground­break­ing individuals.

Jon Ossoff will be the youngest mem­ber of the U.S. Sen­ate – as well as the Peach State’s first Jew­ish sen­a­tor – and rode to vic­to­ry on promis­es to bring youth­ful vig­or to the ossi­fied upper reach­es of nation­al politics.

Rev. Warnock addresses supporters
Rev. Warnock address­es sup­port­ers (Pho­to: Raphael Warnock, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Warnock’s achieve­ment is even more impres­sive; he is the first Black Demo­c­rat from the South to be elect­ed to the U.S. Senate.

Despite Sen­a­tor Loeffler’s bla­tant­ly racial­ized neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing, Warnock (with the help of his bea­gle pup­py) craft­ed an inge­nious cam­paign strat­e­gy that over­came deeply root­ed stereo­types of aggres­sive Black men. In the end, most ana­lysts agreed that the white can­di­date (Ossoff) rode Warnock’s coat­tails into office. In a deli­cious­ly iron­ic twist, he tri­umphed in an elec­toral sys­tem that was explic­it­ly designed to exclude African Amer­i­cans from elect­ed office.

Nei­ther can­di­date could have made it as far as they did with­out decades of activism and orga­niz­ing by grass­roots pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions, and plau­dits have flood­ed in for these groups in recent days – most notably for Stacey Abrams, the stan­dard bear­er of vot­ing rights in the South.

Warnock and Ossoff’s dou­ble vic­to­ry means that, once the Sen­ate is ful­ly sworn-in, the Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans will each hold pre­cise­ly fifty seats.

In prac­tice, this means Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol for the next two years, with Vice Pres­i­dent Kamala Har­ris step­ping in to break tie votes.

It also means that Chuck Schumer will replace Mitch McConnell as the Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader, and will be able to con­trol which bills come up for a vote.

How­ev­er, many impe­di­ents still stand in the path of pro­gres­sive legislation.

For a start, the Repub­li­cans are guar­an­teed to use every pow­er they still pos­sess to thwart the Democ­rats agen­da. Any­one who doubts that should remem­ber the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. The first Black pres­i­dent swept into office with a far more resound­ing man­date than Joe Biden’s and was prac­ti­cal­ly jump­ing to find com­pro­mise with the oth­er side of the aisle. His cen­trist poli­cies (the Patient Protection­ Act was based on a Repub­li­can plan) were met with screams of “Com­mu­nism!” and an open com­mit­ment by McConnell to destroy his pres­i­den­cy.

Of course, with a slim major­i­ty and can­ny lead­er­ship, Democ­rats should be able to over­come some Repub­li­can road­blocks. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the party’s lead­er­ship has a record of incom­pe­tence and spine­less­ness going back years.

Sen­a­tor Schumer in par­tic­u­lar seems to have no con­cept of how to deal with his rabid­ly right-wing Repub­li­can col­leagues – hop­ing against hope that they will sud­den­ly return to the bipar­ti­san con­sen­sus of the 1980s, and utter­ly fail­ing to mar­shal resis­tance to the appoint­ment of yet anoth­er right-wing Supreme Court judge.

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York
U.S. Sen­a­tor Chuck Schumer of New York, the Sen­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic Leader (Pho­to: Third Way)

Per­haps more prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly, the new dynam­ics will give enor­mous pow­er to the most right-wing fig­ures in the Sen­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic caucus.

Sen­a­tors such as Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sine­ma, Chris Coons, and Diane Fein­stein pride them­selves on their abil­i­ty to reach out and find “com­pro­mis­es” with the Repub­li­can side of the cham­ber – which in prac­tice usu­al­ly means let­ting the right wing have what they want. At the same time, they hold unut­ter­able con­tempt for the grass­roots pro­gres­sives who move heav­en and earth to put them in their posi­tions of pow­er (if only for lack of a bet­ter option) year after year.

But hope springs eter­nal. Schumer has been evolv­ing into more of a pro­gres­sive sen­a­tor him­self, endors­ing ideas cham­pi­oned by Eliz­a­beth War­ren, Bernie Sanders, and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez. And at least some pro­gres­sive ideas (though not Medicare For All) may be able to win the back­ing of a Repub­li­can sen­a­tor or two, like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkows­ki, or Mitt Romney.

Pro­gres­sives should not expect any­thing from this Sen­ate with­out lots of sus­tained lob­by­ing. Get­ting good leg­is­la­tion out of the cham­ber won’t be easy.

Still, hav­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of the cham­ber will feel like the wel­come break­ing of a dawn after a depress­ing­ly long night. Democ­rats will wield the gavels and set the sched­ule. They’ll be able to con­firm Joe Biden’s nom­i­nees much more eas­i­ly, and adopt bud­gets through rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the process that allows fis­cal-relat­ed bills to bypass the fil­i­buster and its ridicu­lous six­ty vote threshold.

Had Mitch McConnell stayed in charge, the Sen­ate would have con­tin­ued to be a grave­yard of progress. With Warnock and Ossof­f’s vic­to­ries, much of McConnel­l’s pow­er will be gone, and the Sen­ate will be far less dysfunctional.

For Sen­ate Democ­rats, Warnock and Ossof­f’s arrival will mark the begin­ning of a new era. And the com­ing midterms won’t be fraught with the same per­il as some past cycles were, like 2014, when the par­ty lost its major­i­ty to McConnell.

That’s because, aside from Warnock and Mark Kel­ly, the par­ty won’t have any vul­ner­a­ble incum­bents to defend. Every oth­er Sen­ate Demo­c­rat who is up in 2022 rep­re­sents a state that both Joe Biden and Hillary Clin­ton won.

Only hav­ing to play seri­ous defense in two out of four­teen races is very help­ful when you want to go on offense. Repub­li­cans, mean­while, have twen­ty total seats to defend, sev­er­al of which are in states Democ­rats can win, like Wisconsin.

Even bet­ter, the Repub­li­can incum­bents in Penn­syl­va­nia and North Car­oli­na (also swing states) have decid­ed to retire, which means the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has an oppor­tu­ni­ty to recruit strong can­di­dates ear­ly for winnable open seats.

The par­ty has advan­ta­geous ter­rain on which to com­pete for a more com­fort­able work­ing major­i­ty in the next elec­tion. Will it take advantage?

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