A victory by Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) in next week’s Senate vote would give Democrats a crucial 51st vote in the upper chamber, along with something else they’ve been seeking: breathing room.
Some room to breathe could do wonders for a party that has been forced to navigate the tricky waters of a 50-50 Senate. No longer could a single Democratic member – including Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — derailed a controversial nominee or long-sought bill, giving Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) a boost in the process.
“It’s night and day,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill. “Being able to lose one is 100 times better than not being able to lose one.”
A victory for Warnock, combined with Republicans retaking the House, would serve as a one-two punch that would drastically reduce the pressure and influence of both Manchin and Sinema, the top two moderates in the Senate Democratic caucus.
In addition to being able to lose a Democratic vote on legislation, reconciliation bills, which require only 50 votes and have been the center of Democrats’ hopes for greater legislation and frustration with Manchin and Sinema, would no longer be possible with the House in GOP hands, nor would passing bills simply by getting rid of the legislative filibuster.
“There is pressure on everyone, but the focus on one or two members is dramatically reduced, which makes Schumer’s job that much easier,” Kaine added.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” added Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Of all the Senate Democrats, perhaps none claims to be more excited about a possible Warnock victory than Manchin himself. The West Virginia moderate, along with Sinema, is also up for election in 2024, raising the stakes for the next two years for him personally as he seeks to appeal to both broad Democrats and more conservative voters in his home state.
“I wouldn’t wish 50-50 on anybody,” Manchin told The Hill.
Democrats appear to be in the driver’s seat heading into Tuesday’s runoff. Warnock topped Republican Herschel Walker by more than 36,000 votes on Election Day. According to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls, Warnock leads the former University of Georgia running back by 3.2 percentage points.
A 51st Senate Democrat would also be a gift at the committee level. Gone would be the power-sharing agreement between the two parties that has forced a time-consuming process just to bring some nominees to the Senate floor for votes. Once again, the ruling party will be able to pass party candidates, without the minority side having the opportunity to chew up the work.
“It’s an extra place in the committee. It makes things flow better,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “In committees like the judiciary, for example, it will make a big difference.”
And an extra vote will almost certainly be key, simply because absences from the Senate floor, whether due to health issues or other reasons, are not uncommon. Over the past two years, Senate Democrats fell by at least one vote on a number of occasions, including because of positive COVID-19 results that sidelined members. Two senators — Ben Ray Luján (DN.M.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — even suffered strokes that temporarily incapacitated them.
Combine these concerns with possible health issues for older members, and the 51st vote will almost certainly prove crucial during the 118th Congress.
“It makes a huge difference in our ability to operate,” Van Hollen said. “It gives you a little more operating flexibility.”
An upset victory by Walker, however, would not only dampen Democratic hopes for the next two years, but also give Republicans a big boost heading into what they believe could be a winning cycle for the party. Of the 33 seats up for re-election, 23 are held by Democrats, including a number in red or purple states that will give the party a prime chance to win back the upper chamber.
“Well, we could put this one in the hole for 2024 when we expect to have a pretty good map,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “There’s no need to go back,”
But trouble is at stake for the GOP in the Peach State. In addition to his own personal problems, Walker will not have the advantage of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) at the top of the ticket, as he did last month. Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams on Election Day, winning 2.1 million votes — about 203,000 more than Walker earned.
Because of Democratic victories in Pennsylvania and Nevada, Walker and the Republicans have also been deprived of letting the race decide the majority, which the party counted on as their biggest get-out-the-vote calling card.
“Warnock has all the advantages. I think Herschel might even be the favorite if this were to decide the majority. … It’s not going to be close,” a GOP operative told The Hill. “Our people just have no motivation to vote. Herschel Walker and his campaign are not a motivation for people to vote.”