No single factor is usually the lone cause of a particular electoral outcome — and, in the case of Tuesday’s Senate runoffs in Georgia, there were undoubtedly many different ones at play: the looming end of the Trump administration and the intraparty war over whether to accept November’s defeat, the widespread hardship wrought by the ongoing pandemic, the candidates themselves, the perceived stakes involved. Indeed, on Tuesday night, a perfect confluence of factors appears to have carried candidates Raphael Warnock (who will be the first ever black senator from Georgia) and Jon Ossoff over the top in two hotly contested races set to give Democrats control of the Senate in addition to the House and presidency.
Near top on the list has to be the sheer disarray of the Republican Party, whose chosen tribunes were among the wealthiest people in Congress and both dogged by well-justified allegations of insider trading. Compounding the uniquely unappealing duo of candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, there seems to have been genuine confusion in parts of the GOP base about whether to vote at all — with some Trump supporters suggesting a boycott. (Photos of Loeffler alongside a former member of the Ku Klux Klan can’t have helped a great deal.) Democrats, meanwhile, were able to present a comparatively united front and drive voters to the polls in high numbers, with turnout from black Georgians proving particularly decisive.
The most critical factor, however, appears to have been the ongoing struggle in Congress over economic relief — a battle that ultimately put Trump’s White House at odds with Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist instincts and helped put the prospect of $2,000 relief checks front and center. Polling throughout the state certainly suggests a strong appetite for immediate financial relief. A CNN exit poll, for example, found some 54 percent of Georgian voters reporting that the pandemic has caused them financial hardship, with another analysis from Fox finding 70 percent dissatisfied with Congress’s efforts to offer financial assistance during the pandemic. Both Warnock and Ossoff put the push for $2,000 relief checks, long championed by Bernie Sanders and finally endorsed by president-elect Joe Biden a few days ago, at the center of their campaigns — a strategy that appears to have redounded to the Democrats’ benefit.
However we choose to account for the result, it looks like Joe Biden will be entering office amid Democratic control of both the House and the Senate — marking the first time the party has held all three branches since its wipeout in the 2010 midterms. Put simply, this state of affairs potentially gives the Democrats tremendous latitude to pass legislation (starting with immediate $2,000 relief checks) if, as a caucus, they actually want to. Though the bogeyman of GOP obstruction has always been a bit of a chimera, given the sweeping executive powers afforded to the president, a working majority in both houses of Congress means that any decision to court Republican votes will be made by choice.
In this regard, anyone hoping that the Democrats’ newly secured legislative power will be used to pass an ambitious progressive agenda is likely to be disappointed. Votes were still being counted, and Joe Manchin, one of the party’s most conservative members, was already heralding a new era of bipartisan cooperation. Biden’s own statement this morning seemed to signal much the same:
Georgia’s voters delivered a resounding message yesterday: they want action on the crises we face and they want it right now . . . They want us to move, but move together. I’m pleased that we will be able to work with Speaker Pelosi and a Majority Leader Schumer. But I’m also just as determined today as I was yesterday to try to work with people in both parties — at the federal, state, and local levels — to get big things done.
Give the president-elect’s long-standing embrace of bipartisan compromise as an end in itself, this is hardly surprising. The truth is that Biden’s conservative inclinations make him much more likely to broker across the aisle than compromise with the progressive wing of his own party. Nonetheless, given the outcome of Georgia’s two Senate runoffs, any decision to govern this way will be a voluntary choice — and no one should allow the Democratic leadership to pretend otherwise.