WASHINGTON — There was a time when Democrats were confident they wouldn't just win the presidency, but also take control of the Senate and end Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's iron grip on the chamber. Those hopes are shrinking rapidly and hinge on two very unsure runoff races.
Democrats were projected to have an excellent chance to take the Senate on Election Day but lost a string of close races, leaving them with an incredibly tough path to overtake Republicans — and we may not know the answer until January. Democrats are currently projected to have 47 seats to Republicans’ 48. They’ll need to win three of the remaining five races and for Biden to win the presidency to take control; if Biden loses, they’ll need to win four of the Senate races.
Democrats are currently favored to win in Arizona, where Democrat Mark Kelly has already declared victory over Republican Sen. Martha McSally. But beyond that, the situation doesn’t look great for the party. Republicans are currently leading in Alaska, where they are favored, and in North Carolina.
That leaves Georgia’s two seats with the power to swing control of the Senate. Both races are heading to runoff elections in January because no candidate hit 50% of the vote. The runoffs will take place on Jan. 5.
Reaching 50 seats would be a massive win for Democrats if Biden wins the White House. It would give them control of the Senate, albeit barely, because as vice president, Kamala Harris would cast tiebreaking votes.
But to get there, Democrats will have to perform better in the Georgia runoffs than they did in the general election. Despite picking up seats in Colorado and likely Arizona, Democrats lost a toss-up race against Sen. Susan Collins in Maine and consistently lost in red-leaning states like Montana, Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas.
In one Georgia race, incumbent Republican David Perdue leads Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, though the gap has been shrinking. Perdue fell just below 50% of the vote Thursday morning while Ossoff sat at about 48% as votes are still being counted; Decision Desk HQ projected that the race would go to a runoff on Thursday night.
The bad news for Ossoff is that Libertarian Party candidate Shane Hazel, who had pulled in more than 2% of the vote, will drop off the ballot. Ossoff will need to increase his share of the vote by enough to compensate for the many Libertarian voters who will presumably move over to Perdue.
The other race — a special election triggered by the retirement of former Republican senator Johnny Isakson — is more fractured because two viable Republican candidates were competing for the seat. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to replace Isakson earlier this year, won that battle with 26% of the vote. Rep. Doug Collins, one of President Donald Trump’s most aggressive allies, received 20% of the vote and will fall off the ballot.
Democrat Raphael Warnock finished first with about 33% of the vote and will now face off against Loeffler alone. Collins endorsed Loeffler and his voters should overwhelmingly stick with the Republican ticket. The good news for Warnock is that four other Democratic candidates will drop off the ballot as well, but they only made up about 13% of the vote combined.
Winning either race would be a huge coup in a state that was solidly Republican until this year. Georgia has rapidly transformed into a purple state, with Biden and Trump neck and neck in the race for the state’s Electoral College votes. But to take the Senate, Democrats will have zero margin for error and need both seats, barring something surprising happening in Alaska or North Carolina.
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Losing the Senate would be a devastating loss for the Democratic Party, which had hoped to follow the Donald Trump era with sweeping moves, such as expanding the Affordable Care Act, gun control measures, immigration reform, and new environmental laws. McConnell, who won his own reelection race in Kentucky on Tuesday, has consistently blocked Democratic legislation and can continue to do so.
Although Democrats will very likely retain the House, Republicans don’t even need to go through the effort of voting down progressive bills. McConnell just never brings them to the floor, meaning they never get debated or go to a vote. For any bill to become law, it will have to be approved by Republicans.
Given how bitterly partisan Congress has become, it is unlikely that Republicans will approve of many of Biden’s policies if he wins. President Barack Obama tried to win over Republicans on bipartisan initiatives, and they mostly refused.
If President Donald Trump wins, he will likely be in a similar situation because Democrats control the House. But the president can continue to stock the judiciary with conservative judges because confirming them falls to the Senate.
Democrats have long raged about the Senate’s aversion to taking up meaningful legislation. Under McConnell, the Senate has become known as a “legislative graveyard” — a term he has embraced — because of how rarely bills were passed. McConnell has mostly ignored legislation passed by the House, even when Republicans were in control of it, and focused on appointing judges. The Senate has passed few significant pieces of legislation over the past four years, but McConnell has confirmed 218 federal judges to lifetime appointments and put three conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
Republican control of the Senate would also mean conservative control of the Supreme Court will not be threatened. Prominent progressive figures were calling on Biden to expand the court by adding and filling new seats with Democratic nominees, but that is not possible without control of the Senate.
The precedent of the past two years is that not much is able to pass through a split Congress, but one area where a bipartisan deal could be reached is a new coronavirus relief bill. The provisions of the last aid bill expired over the summer, leaving individuals and businesses without any government support. Biden has promised to pass a new relief bill; though negotiations between Trump’s White House and the House of Representatives have broken down, Trump has also promised to pass an aid bill after the election.
This story was updated after Decision Desk HQ projected that both Georgia Senate races will now go to a runoff in January.