NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, January 8th, 2021

Scramble for the Senate: Democrats finally prevail in their quest to regain a majority

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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