If Raphael Warnock wins in Georgia next week, Democrats will claim a prize bigger than a single Senate seat: a real majority.
The Dec. 6 runoff between Warnock and GOP opponent Herschel Walker is an unusually consequential individual Senate race — determining whether the chamber would remain evenly divided, making Joe Manchin once again Democrats’ deciding vote and Republican control just a heartbeat away.
A Warnock victory would give Democrats a firmer hand on nearly everything in the Senate, from committees to the floor, while improving the party’s defense ahead of a tough map in 2024.
Georgia is a prime example of a single race’s ability to reshape the composition of the Senate, even if it doesn’t determine the majority. And as much as Democrats are thrilled to keep control of the chamber, they’ve learned over the past two years that control with 50 seats has huge limitations: Tied committees mean party-line subpoenas are impossible, nominees can take days to bring to the Senate floor and just one rogue Democrat can slam on the brakes.
With 51 seats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could finally employ a more efficient tactical hold on the floor, and Democratic majorities on committees could operate with more impunity in determining what nominees and legislation are sent to the full chamber.
“There's probably a bigger difference between 50 and 51 than any other two numbers in this place,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “The inability of one senator to hold up an agenda makes a difference too. Coalitions of one are easy to make in this place; coalitions of two are much more difficult.”
The last time a single race had comparable impact without making or breaking the majority was in 2017, when then-Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) extinguished any remaining GOP hopes of repealing Obamacare by narrowing its majority to 51 seats. Another special-election tremor arrived in 2010, when Republican Scott Brown’s win broke Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority.
The stakes in December are high for Republicans, too, after the party lost its chance to take back Senate control earlier this month and failed to unseat any Democratic incumbents. A Walker win in Georgia would allow Republicans to further slow President Joe Biden’s agenda, hamstring Democratic committees and position them well to flip the chamber, either in 2024 or if there’s a vacancy that prompts a special election before then.
The GOP interest in the runoff was immediately apparent on Monday afternoon. After recognizing the Thanksgiving holiday in a floor speech, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell spent several minutes pounding Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) as “reckless rubber stamps” for Biden.
“It sets you up better for” 2024, said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who added that “having an evenly divided Senate means you get equal representation on committees. And you know, we've been successfully able to bottle up some bad nominees at the committee level. So it's got real consequences.”
Republicans have ousted just one Democratic incumbent since 2019 and are looking for a boost after a month of bitter infighting that saw the first-ever challenge to McConnell. So Republicans' biggest reward for defeating Warnock may be a morale infusion after a disappointing November.
No matter the result in Georgia, the Senate’s legislative filibuster will remain in place because Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) both oppose weakening the 60-vote threshold needed to pass most bills. But the difference between 51 seats and 50 is crucial for the nuts and bolts of government: Vice President Kamala Harris would not need to break so many ties on the floor, the party could approve nominees despite the occasional Manchin opposition and an ill Democratic senator wouldn’t send the Capitol into a frenzy.
Biden could even consider appointing Democratic senators to his Cabinet with less fear of losing control of the chamber once they're confirmed. A 51-seat majority would also give Schumer slightly more wiggle room if any one single member of his caucus goes astray.
"It's all the difference in the world,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “It really means we have a majority, as opposed to a kind of teetering control.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, said that reelecting Warnock means “you get an extra person on the committee, and it would make things flow better.” He specifically mentioned the Judiciary Committee, which is sharply divided along party lines — empowering Republicans to delay lifetime judicial nominees on tied votes.
In addition, with the incoming House GOP majority pledging to use its newly acquired oversight power against Biden’s son Hunter, a 51-seat Democratic Senate majority could be an important backstop for the party. At the moment, Senate Democrats currently cannot unilaterally issue subpoenas and are often still operating under old committee rules from when the GOP ran the chamber.
“It changes the dynamics of the rules of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We had to retain the rules from the old times. We didn’t have enough votes to change them,” said the panel's chair, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “And even more significant questions like the issuance of subpoenas are affected by whether you have a real majority.”
Georgia has been a bright spot for Democrats of late — without flipping the state's two seats in 2020 special elections, they would not have the majority this time. Midterm wins by Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Sen.-elect John Fetterman also mean that Walker cannot cast his campaign as a check on Biden that would flip the Senate to GOP control.
Instead, Republicans would at best be able to slow Democrats down and set themselves up better for next fall if Walker prevails.
And for some in the GOP, even a win in Georgia would do little to solve the party’s problems.
“As long as we have Donald Trump hanging over the party like a gargoyle, we need more than a shot in the arm,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.