Why, practically speaking, a greater majority matters
Democrats have the simple 50-vote majority they need to control the Senate, thanks to Vice President Harris’ tiebreaker. But the addition of a 51st seat is important when it comes to pushing through legislation and, especially over the next two years, judges.
Committees currently have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, but a 51st vote would likely allow Democrats to have real (albeit slight) Democratic majorities. These committees were able to push through legislation and nominations, but Republicans were able to scrub the work to some extent thanks to tie votes and the procedural hurdles that come with them.
Where it could be particularly important over the next two years: judges. Republicans will control the House, making it harder to pass costly laws. But only the Senate votes on judges and other confirmations. And while Democrats have generally been able to uphold President Biden’s picks, taking tie votes off the table would grease the slippages.
You can bet confirming the justices will be a huge priority, given the shared control of Congress and how much President Donald Trump and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were able to recast the justice system during the last administration. Biden has had limited success reversing that so far. (While Biden’s total number of confirmed judges is similar to Trump’s, Trump replaced many other judges who had been nominated by the other side, especially at the highest levels.)
It also matters in cases where Democrats are struggling to get votes even from their own members. For the past two years, they have had to respond to Senate moderates Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona). Having 51 votes would mean the Democrats could lose one of those two on most votes and could put forward more progressive justices.
Again, the legislative advantage of this is reduced thanks to the GOP controlling the House and effectively holding veto power over the Democratic agenda. But, as Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein notes, it could impact Democrats’ ability to conduct surveillance investigations — which they no longer control in the House.
The Future of Senate Oversight
At election time, people often talk about each party’s calculations to secure a majority – as if additional seats beyond that threshold are somewhat inconsequential. But the size of that majority matters, even beyond a party’s immediate ability to get things done.
On the one hand, it is an insurance policy against the unthinkable – the possibility that vacancies or party changes could topple the majority. This has happened before, most recently in 2001. If it hasn’t happened more often, it’s mainly because the Senate isn’t usually that tightly divided. But vacancies and seat flips do happen – a lot. In fact, since World War II, about 70% of Congresses have featured some sort of change in the partisan balance of the Senate between elections.
How might this matter over the next two years? Well, 13 Democratic senators and senators-elect serve in states with GOP governors, and those governors could nominate a Republican to replace them in 11 cases. (Several states limit the nomination to one member of the incumbent senator’s party, but most do not.) Four of those who could be replaced by a Republican are in their 60s or older.
Then there are the implications for future elections. The fact that the Democrats have held the Senate this year is partly due to those victories in Georgia two years ago. This meant that the party only had to hold on, rather than win two seats. The Senate map in 2024 is tough for Democrats, and having an extra seat as a buffer would improve their chances of retaining a majority.
The stakes for winning Senate seats are particularly high, given that the winner does not face re-election for six years. That’s a seat in the bank for the next two elections.
Georgia running runoffs was troublesome for the GOP in 2020. Republicans got more votes in both races on Election Day but then lost them in the runoffs.
Fast forward to 2022, and having Georgia run off could be pretty awkward for Trump. It’s already abundantly clear that Trump-backed candidates are costing winnable GOP seats (look at the chart here) and most likely a Senate majority. This has forced the GOP to reckon a bit, after three bad elections under Trump.
Imagine that, four weeks later, we see another defeat for a Trump-backed candidate who is objectively very flawed in Walker. It would only reinforce what Trump has been doing, even as Trump has just launched his campaign to return to the White House in 2024.
So far, Trump-backed and aligned candidates have lost in Nevada and New Hampshire, even as the GOP has won the gubernatorial race in both. And its candidates also underperformed their fellow state Republicans in Arizona and Ohio.
Georgia would be a particularly big setback, however, given that every other GOP candidate statewide won on Election Day — and by an average of more than seven points. Many of them did so after easily brushing aside key Trump-backed challenges, giving the rest of the post more of an establishment flavor that voters seemed to appreciate. But in the race for the Senate, the party felt compelled to embrace Trump’s choice of a former soccer star with a lot of baggage.
On Tuesday, we learned that his decision most likely cost the GOP another Senate seat — and all the perks that come with it.