It’s finally over: Five full days after the actual year 2020 ended, the 2020 elections have ended too.
And they ended with a bang early Wednesday morning. With slim but decisive victories, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in one fell swoop turned both of Georgia’s US Senate seats Democratic, according to projections by Vox’s election partner Decision Desk. In doing so, the candidates ensured that the party will have a razor-thin 50-50 Senate majority once Vice President Kamala Harris takes office on January 20.
The results will thus fundamentally change the next two years of American politics. Instead of being hamstrung by an intransigent Republican majority leader in the Senate, President-elect Joe Biden will have a narrow majority in both Houses of Congress. So long as Senate Democrats are in unanimous agreement, Biden will be able to use budget reconciliation to pass further Covid-19 vaccination measures, additional economic stimulus and aid to states and cities, and investments in green energy and caregiving as part of his “Build Back Better” agenda. Policy ideas once considered dead on arrival, like a national public option for health insurance, suddenly look, if not likely, at least possible.
That’s only the beginning of the implications of the results from the Georgia special election. Here’s who ended up ahead and who fell behind.
Winners: Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
For one thing, there was only supposed to be one Senate election in Georgia this year; the other wasn’t up for reelection until 2022. But Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson surprised everyone in August 2019 by announcing his resignation for health reasons, effective at the end of the year. At the time, my colleague Li Zhou wrote that the move “could have major implications for Democratic efforts to retake the upper chamber.” Did it ever.
But more broadly, Georgia was not supposed to be the tipping point state. In other closely fought states, Democrats really did get their dream candidates. Gov. Steve Bullock ran in Montana; their top recruits in Arizona and Colorado, astronaut Mark Kelly and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, respectively, ran too. Kelly and Hickenlooper won (and Bullock ran ahead of Biden in a deep red state), but in states like North Carolina and Texas where top Democratic prospects didn’t run, the party fell short.
None of the top Georgia Democrats ran in 2020. No incumbent member of the US House stepped up; former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, national Democrats’ top prospect, declined, as did 2014 governor nominee Jason Carter, 2014 Senate nominee Michelle Nunn, and former deputy US Attorney General/Georgia US Attorney Sally Yates.
Instead, Warnock and Ossoff, two candidates with no experience in elected office, got the nods. Ossoff in particular, who fell short in a closely watched, heavily funded congressional special election in 2017, felt almost like a default candidate. Warnock has a long background as a pastor that gave him a built-in base; Ossoff had little more than name recognition.
Both were true underdog candidates. Yes, they got massive national support, in financing and campaigning, especially when it became clear their runoffs would decide control of the US Senate. But they are both unlikely senators, with Ossoff, only 33, becoming arguably the first millennial to join the body. Warnock will be the first Black senator from Georgia, and only the second Black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
It’s a huge personal victory for Warnock and Ossoff, even if the national implications of their wins might overshadow that.
Loser: Mitch McConnell
Shortly after being sworn in to the Senate for his first term in 1985, Mitch McConnell set a goal for himself: to become the chamber’s majority leader. It took 30 years, but he finally achieved it in 2014 when, after eight years leading Republicans in the minority, the GOP retook control of the chamber. McConnell then protected his majority through tough election cycles in 2016 and 2018, got three conservative Supreme Court justices confirmed, and won his own reelection for his seventh (and, many believe, final) term in November.
But Republicans’ double defeat in Georgia means McConnell will begin that term as minority, rather than majority, leader — an outcome he has been trying desperately to avoid since it became clear that President Trump lost reelection and that Senate control would be decided in Georgia.
His strategy, at first, was to let Trump have some room as the president refused to concede, to avoid dividing the GOP before the runoffs. In his first Senate floor speech after the election was called for Biden, McConnell snarked about Democratic hypocrisy, said the president was merely pursuing legal options as candidates often do, and claimed “our system” would work things out. (That’s the day an anonymous senior Republican official told the Washington Post, “What is the downside for humoring him [Trump] for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.”)
But if you give Trump an inch, he’ll take a mile, and the president’s frenzied and corrupt (and scattershot and incompetent) effort to dispute the results has not yet ended. He became obsessed with overturning the results in Georgia specifically, pursuing personal feuds against state officials who would not rig the results in his favor. All this culminated this past weekend when Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and asked him to “find” votes for him — resulting in Raffensperger’s team leaking a recording of that call, foregrounding Republican disarray two days before the special Senate elections.
To McConnell’s (very limited) credit, he did nothing to outright help Trump’s election-stealing effort (and if you read between the lines of his statements, you could tell he wasn’t on board). Indeed, shortly after the Electoral College voted in mid-December, McConnell did acknowledge Biden’s win. But in November, he had made the choice to let Trump run wild rather than try to rein him in — and given his stature in Republican politics, that was a signal to many other GOP politicians that they should do the same.
It’s far from clear whether, if McConnell had more forthrightly challenged Trump back in November, it would have changed Tuesday’s outcomes. (It may well have made things worse if Trump had declared war on the Senate GOP rather than campaigning for Loeffler and Perdue.) But in addition to the Trump fallout, another recent McConnell decision — his refusal to allow the Senate to vote on a clean measure to send out $2,000 stimulus checks — will also be in for some second-guessing. What’s clear is that the post-election period has been a disaster for McConnell, and that his long-cherished prize has slipped out of his fingers — at least for now.
Loser: Trump’s election discrediting strategy
It’s still too early to say exactly why the Republicans blew what seemed like two winnable Senate races. But there’s good reason to believe that President Trump — and his anti-democratic attempts to overturn the presidential election in Georgia and other states — will end up shouldering a significant portion of the blame.
There are at least two reasons to believe that Trump’s attacks on the election hurt Loeffler and Perdue.
First, his repeated attack on the integrity of the electoral process — arguing that Georgia, in particular, experienced massive fraud in the presidential election — seems to have convinced many Republicans that the election was in fact fraudulent. CNN’s exit polls found that 76 percent of Republican voters believed the state’s presidential election wasn’t fair, and Republican turnout was on the lower end compared to expectations. While exit polls aren’t super reliable, it’s possible that a small but crucial number of Republicans were so committed to Trump’s fraud claims that they didn’t even bother to show up at the polls — a boycott encouraged by some Trump allies angry at the national party for not going all-in on his claims.
Second, Trump’s attack on the election inflamed Democrats and helped nationalize the races in a particularly unhelpful way, turning what could have been contests driven by local considerations into a referendum on Trump in a state he lost. It’s possible that Republican attacks on Ossoff and Warnock might have been more effective if Trump weren’t constantly in the news; it’s also possible that Loeffler and Perdue might have benefited more from their votes in favor of the popular coronavirus relief bill if Trump’s election shenanigans weren’t front and center.
To be clear: It’s way too early to say with certainty what role, if any, Trump played in Georgia’s results. But these theories are likely to become a staple of cable news insta-postmortems and the GOP circular firing squad that will emerge on Wednesday morning. The more this becomes part of the public narrative of what happened in Georgia, the worse Trump’s election attacks will look even among partisan Republicans.
That’s a good thing for American democracy.
Winner: Joe Manchin
In just over two weeks, Joe Biden becomes the president of the United States. Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories mean that Republicans in the House and Senate will not be able to actively sabotage the executive branch of the federal government. With a Democratic Senate, Biden will be able to confirm a Cabinet, confirm at least some judges, and sign at least some spending bills thanks to a process known as “budget reconciliation.”
But the balance of power in that Senate will be held by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus. If Republicans unite in opposition to a Biden nominee, it will most likely be Manchin who decides whether that individual is confirmed. When Biden hopes to negotiate a budget or a new Covid-19 relief bill, Manchin will play an outsize role in those negotiations.
Biden will control the executive branch, but it is only somewhat of an exaggeration to say that Joe Manchin — the most likely tipping point for any number of measures — will control the legislative branch. Manchin, it’s worth noting, has a record of working with Republican senators like Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Mitt Romney (UT), all of whom occasionally break from their party on significant votes. But where he disagrees with his sometime Republican allies, Manchin is likely to hold the 50th vote in the Senate, and the power to decide whether important matters succeed or fail.
Whenever a controversy arises in Congress, the first question on every reporter’s lips will be “what does Sen. Manchin think?” Not long after it became clear that Warnock and Ossoff were likely to prevail, Joe Manchin’s name started trending on Twitter.
Unfortunately for Biden — and for America — Manchin also gains the power to decide whether most of Biden’s legislative agenda will be dead on arrival. Manchin is a staunch opponent of abolishing the filibuster, the antiquated process that allows a minority of the Senate to block most legislation unless 60 senators agree to end that blockade.
Republicans will no doubt deploy the filibuster ruthlessly against Biden, just as they deployed it against President Obama. Meanwhile, Democrats and liberal policy wonks are likely to come up with various plans to weaken the filibuster without abolishing it — I’ve proposed exempting statehood bills from the filibuster, for example.
Will any of these proposals to weaken but not eliminate the filibuster prevail? That’s likely up to Joe Manchin.
Winner: Stacey Abrams and Georgia organizers
The real face of Democrats’ victory in Georgia isn’t Jon Ossoff or Raphael Warnock; it’s Stacey Abrams.
Abrams, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate and founder of the voting rights group Fair Fight, was encouraged by many to run for the Senate herself. Instead, she opted to help organize, along with dozens of other voting rights groups.
She had long argued that Georgia was on the cusp of becoming a swing state and could get there given enough dedicated resources and organizing. Years of hard work from dozens of groups made it a reality; first with Biden’s November win, and then with Ossoff’s and Warnock’s stunning January victories.
“Our time is now,” Abrams told Vox in an email interview shortly before the November election.
Between the 2018 midterms where Abrams narrowly lost the governor’s race and the November 2020 election, 800,000 Georgians registered to vote. And there was no rest for Georgia’s voting organizers from November to January.
“We do voter registration 365 days a year, not just during a major election,” Deborah Scott, the executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, told Vox recently.
A coalition of dozens of groups coordinated by America Votes knocked on 8.5 million doors in Georgia; they also made about 20 million phone calls and sent over 18 million texts. Some groups got creative in the pursuit of turning out low-propensity voters, mobilizing with food drives and Thanksgiving turkey giveaways to encourage people to register and get out to the polls.
Ultimately, their work paid off in a huge way, proving that Joe Biden’s November win in Georgia wasn’t an aberration.
“Folks didn’t allow themselves to hope,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the voting rights group New Georgia Project. “Ultimately, you have to conceive of it first before we can build it; folks have to believe that it’s possible.”
Winner: Ketanji Brown Jackson (or Leondra Kruger)
The last time a Democrat was president and Republicans controlled the Senate, in 2015 and 2016, Mitch McConnell nearly shut down all confirmations to the federal appellate bench. And, of course, there was that whole affair with Judge Merrick Garland, the Obama Supreme Court nominee who wasn’t even given a confirmation hearing by a Republican Senate.
Had Republicans maintained control of the Senate, it’s likely that McConnell would have repeated this performance. Biden could have struggled to confirm any judge, much less a nominee to a powerful appeals court. And a Biden Supreme Court nominee could very well have not even been considered.
But with Democrats controlling the Senate, even by a narrow margin, McConnell will not be able to blockade the judiciary. Among other things, that means that Justice Stephen Breyer, the 82-year-old Clinton appointee to the Supreme Court, can retire knowing that his replacement-in-waiting will not suffer Garland’s fate.
Biden, meanwhile, has promised to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court. If a vacancy arises on the high Court after Biden has already named many judges to the lower courts, Biden will likely be able to choose from among his own appointees. But if a vacancy opens up right away, the two most likely candidates are Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a federal district judge in DC, and Justice Leondra Kruger, who sits on the California Supreme Court.
President Obama, it’s worth noting, interviewed Jackson for the nomination that eventually went to Garland, and Jackson clerked for Justice Breyer. Kruger clerked for the late Justice John Paul Stevens.
But regardless of whom Biden might choose for an eventual Supreme Court vacancy, one of the most significant consequences of Warnock and Ossoff’s victories is that such a vacancy is now overwhelmingly likely to be filled. That wouldn’t be the case if McConnell were in charge.
Winner: More stimulus
President-elect Biden made additional coronavirus relief an explicit part of his pitch to Georgia voters earlier this week — and now that Democrats have won the Senate, more cash aid is far more likely to become a reality.
“By electing Jon and the reverend … [those $2,000 checks] will go out the door immediately to people who are in real trouble,” Biden said while stumping on Ossoff’s and Warnock’s behalf on Tuesday. While it likely won’t be quite that straightforward, it is true that additional stimulus has a much better chance of getting approved with Democrats in control of the Senate.
Thus far, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has prevented the $2,000 payments from advancing by tying them to a repeal of liability protections for tech companies and repeatedly blocking a standalone vote on them. With Republicans out of the majority come January 20 (when Kamala Harris can act as tie-breaker and elect Chuck Schumer as majority leader), McConnell won’t be able to set the Senate’s legislative agenda any longer.
That change could well clear the path for another stimulus package: Democrats have emphasized, for instance, their support for larger checks as well as more state and local aid. And while they’ll still need some Republican backing if they go the route of a typical vote, they won’t have to contend with McConnell quashing the bill before it even gets to the floor.