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.
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.
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?