Senate math: 50 plus 1 equals a lot

by Steven Roberts

What does 50 plus one equal? A lot more than 51.

The clear victory by Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia’s runoff election — which gives Democrats 51 seats in the Senate that convenes in January — has enormous practical, political and psychological implications. For starters, it makes life a whole lot easier for President Biden and his Senate allies, especially in their efforts to place more progressives in federal judgeships.

At the same time, the result further tarnishes the reputation of Biden’s chief rival, Donald Trump, who promoted the disastrous candidacy of Warnock’s Republican challenger, football idol Herschel Walker.

A new Marquette Law School poll shows Biden crushing Trump by 10 points in a rematch of their 2020 clash. One-third of GOP loyalists view Trump unfavorably, and a growing number are now willing to brand the ex-president with the label he hates most in the world: loser.

“Fellow conservatives, it’s time to move on — because Trump is unstable, and because he cannot win,” columnist Marc Thiessen, a longstanding Trump defender, wrote in The Washington Post. “If Republicans nominate this man, they will lose — and they will deserve to.”

From Biden’s perspective, one major significance of Warnock’s victory lies in obscure Senate rules. For the last two years, Democrats have held only 50 seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote. As a result, they had to negotiate a power-sharing pact with Republican leader Mitch McConnell, which gave the GOP equal membership on every Senate committee — and sizeable power to hinder and harass Democratic priorities.

Now Democrats will enjoy a majority on every committee, particularly the judiciary panel, which processes federal judgeship nominations. Judges are often the most lasting legacy of any president. Trump successfully installed more than 200 of them, and Biden has done pretty well so far, winning approval of 87 judges with 54 additional nominations pending. Moreover, three-fourths of them are women and two-thirds are nonwhite. But the pace of approval could pick up considerably once Republican leverage diminishes next month.

With Republicans taking control of the House, Biden’s prospects for legislative achievements dim considerably. But the White House is still grateful that Warnock’s win reduces the influence of Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia who single-handedly thwarted many of Biden’s more progressive proposals. While campaigning in Georgia, Barack Obama used that very argument, telling voters that just one more Democrat “prevents one person from holding up everything.”

A one-vote margin also provides an insurance policy against disaster. Manchin has occasionally flirted with changing parties, a West Virginia tradition since the current governor, Jim Justice, left the Democrats for the Republicans. Now the Democrats can survive any Manchin machinations and retain the majority.

They can also survive the loss of one member to death or illness — a real possibility, since 20 Democrats are over age 70, including 89-year-old Dianne Feinstein of California and 81-year-old Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Another beneficiary of Warnock’s win is Vice President Harris, who has had a rocky two years. One reason: She’s been tethered to Washington in case she needs to cast a tie-breaking vote; now she’ll be liberated to travel more freely.

Retaining the Georgia seat gives Democrats a bit of a cushion going into the 2024 cycle, when the Senate map will heavily favor Republicans. Democrats will have to defend seats in red states like Montana and Ohio as well as West Virginia, while Republicans have few vulnerable incumbents.

In presidential politics, it’s now clear that Democrats can win purple states like Georgia, even in the South, with good candidates who can energize the party base without antagonizing potential moderate recruits. And as a minister in Martin Luther King Jr.’s old church, Warnock revives an important tradition that has lapsed in recent years: the influence of progressive pastors who preach a very different version of the Gospel than the conservative evangelicals who have risen to prominence in Republican ranks.

If Georgia was good for Democrats, it was bad for Republicans — Trump in particular. This marks the fifth state where a Trump-backed candidate lost a winnable Senate race — following Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire — and Walker was the most dismal of all of Trump’s failed favorites.

As Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, told CBS, “I think Herschel Walker will probably go down as one of the worst Republican candidates in our party’s history.”

So what does 50 plus one equal? Many things. But the simplest answer: relief.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email: stevecokie@gmail.com.