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 excited as Democrats are about retaining control of the chamber, they’ve learned over the past two years that 50-seat control has huge limitations: Bound committees mean party-level subpoenas are impossible, it can take days , until candidates are brought to trial on Senate floor and only a breakaway Democrat can hit the brakes.
Majority leader in the Senate with 51 seats Chuck Schumer could finally exercise more effective tactical influence over the floor, and democratic majorities in committees could decide with greater impunity which candidates and laws go to the full chamber.
“There’s probably a bigger difference between 50 and 51 than any other two numbers in this place,” Sen said. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “A senator’s inability to stick to an agenda also makes a difference. Coalitions are easy to forge in this place; Two-party coalitions are much more difficult.”
The last time a single race had a comparable impact without attaining or breaking a majority was in 2017, when then-Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) snuffed out any remaining GOP hopes for Obamacare’s repeal , reducing his majority to 51 seats. Another special election tremor came in 2010, when Republican Scott Brown’s victory broke the filibuster-proof majority of Democrats.
The stakes are also high for Republicans in December, after the party missed their chance to regain control of the Senate earlier this month and failed to unseat a Democratic incumbent. A Walker victory in Georgia would allow Republicans to further slow President Joe Biden’s agenda, crippling Democratic committees and positioning them well to flip the chamber, either in 2024 or if there’s a vacancy that comes before that leads to special elections.
The GOP’s interest in the runoff was immediately apparent Monday afternoon. After acknowledging the Thanksgiving holiday in a floor speech, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell spent several minutes pounding Warnock and Sen. Jon Osoff (D-Ga.) as a “ruthless stamp” for Biden.
“It better prepares you for” 2024, Senate Minority Whip said John Thun (RS.D.), who added that “an evenly divided Senate means you have equal representation on committees. And you know, we’ve been able to catch some bad nominees at the committee level. So it has real consequences.”
Republicans have ousted just one Democratic incumbent since 2019 and are looking for a rebound after a month of bitter fighting that saw McConnell challenged for the first time. So the Republicans’ biggest reward for defeating Warnock might be a morale infusion after a disappointing November.
Regardless of the outcome in Georgia, the Senate legislative filibuster will remain in place as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are both opposed to lowering the 60-vote threshold required to pass most bills. But the difference between 51 seats and 50 is critical to the be-all and end-all of government: Vice President Kamala Harris wouldn’t have to cut as many ties on the ground, the party could admit candidates despite occasional Manchin opposition, and an ailing Democratic senator would not frenzy the Capitol.
Biden might even consider appointing Democratic senators to his cabinet with less fear of losing control of the chamber once confirmed. A 51-seat majority would also give Schumer a little more leeway if a single member of his faction goes astray.
“That’s the difference in the world,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “It really means we have a majority as opposed to some kind of shaky control.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said Warnock’s re-election means “you get one extra person on the committee and things would flow better.” He specifically mentioned the Judiciary Committee, which is sharply divided along party lines and empowers Republicans to delay life judge nominees in the event of a tie.
With the GOP majority in the new House of Representatives pledging to use their newly acquired oversight powers against Biden’s son Hunter, a majority in the 51-seat Democratic Senate could be a key pillar of support for the party. For now, Senate Democrats cannot issue unilateral subpoenas and often still operate under old committee rules from when the GOP ran the chamber.
“It changes the dynamic of the rules of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We had to keep the rules from the old days. We didn’t have enough votes to change it,” said the panel’s chair, Sen. Dick Durbin (Dill.). “And even more important issues like issuing subpoenas are affected by whether you have a real majority.”
Georgia has been a bright spot for Democrats lately — without flipping the state’s two seats in the 2020 special election, they wouldn’t have a majority this time. Halftime wins by Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly from Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto from Nevada, Maggie Hasan of New Hampshire and Senator-elect John Fetterman also mean Walker cannot use his campaign as a check against Biden, which would subject the Senate to GOP control.
Instead, Republicans could, at best, hold Democrats back and position themselves 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 woes.
“As long as Donald Trump hangs 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.