Why the Georgia Runoff Matters (and Who Will Win It)

After some soccer to distract us from politics, today politics returns to center stage. Like some horror movie, the midterms are back from the dead for one last dramatic moment. (Just when you thought it was safe to go outside, District of Columbia Pictures presents… “Georgia Runoff III: Republicans’ Revenge”!) Once again, a Georgia runoff is necessary to determine who fills one of the state’s seats in the Senate. Tonight we should know whether Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock or Republican challenger Herschel Walker goes to Washington when the new 118th Congress convenes on January 3.

Despite this resurrected drama, this sequel, like so many sequels before, hasn’t felt quite as interesting as the original. Unlike in 2020, when the results of Georgia’s runoff elections determined which party had the Senate majority, this time around we already know that the Democrats will hold their majority with at least 50 seats and Vice President Harris as a tiebreaker. Tonight’s runoff could get Republicans to 50 as well, but without the tiebreaker they’d remain in the minority. Conversely, with a win tonight Democrats can extend their lead to 51 seats to the GOP’s 49.

So if the majority is already determined, does the runoff even matter all that much?

Yes, absolutely! Here are five reasons why it matters whether the Democrats are at 50 or 51.

1. I’ll start dark (or, if you’re a far-right insurrectionist, optimistically): a Democrat could die. Or one might be in the hospital for a crucial vote. Or one might be forced to resign for health reasons, a scandal, or to focus on a run for president. These replacements are sometimes appointed by the state’s governor, so if the Democrat in question hails from a state with a Republican governor, that could cost the party a seat. Alternatively, sometimes states wait for the next election to fill the seat, and that could take a while.

In all cases, if the Democrats started at just 50, they’d have only 49 senators until a replacement showed up. If they start at 51, they could still get by with 50 plus the Vice President.

2. Committees! Even though Democrats have enjoyed a Constitutional majority these last two years, they haven’t held a mathematical one. Therefore, every Senate committee has been even Ted Stevens. Democrats therefore have no margin of error not only on the Senate floor, but also in all the committees that do most of the chamber’s work. If they get to 51, they can have committee majorities and reduce some resistance in many areas of lawmaking.

3. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. In a 50-50 Senate, Democrats’ two most frustrating senators each hold considerable power over votes. In their optimal scenario, Democrats hoped to pick up at least two seats at the midterms so they didn’t need to be so beholden to the unpredictable duo who annoyingly considers their constituents and own conscience instead of blindly voting with their party.

Without 52 seats, 51 is the next best thing (fact check: confirmed), as Manchin and Sinema’s leverage would be halved.

4. Like West Virginia, I’ll inexplicably stick with Manchin here. Manchin has long been Democrats’ most conservative senator, and for good reason. He represents West Virginia! It was Trump’s best state in 2016 and second best in 2020. It’s a political miracle that Manchin has survived this long as a Democrat, including siding with Democrats on key votes, like Supreme Court nominees. Democrats, progressives especially, love to complain about him, but I think he’s among the most impressive politicians this country has. And when Democrats nominate anyone else in West Virginia, like they did in 2014 and 2020, they get destroyed. It shows how valuable he is to the party. Any lefty who thinks “he might as well be a Republican” or “With friends like these…” should first consider the benefits of Democrats holding the majority, including having the Senate Majority Leader and holding committee chairs across the chamber.

The point: Manchin’s life gets a lot less stressful if he flips parties, which is constantly a danger for Democrats. As it stands, he’s always balancing his constituents’ desires against his party’s, setting him up for lots of tough votes. If Democratic leadership ever presses him too much — and it felt like President Biden’s recent accusations about Manchin’s attachment to the coal industry qualifies — Manchin could bolt. And if it’s 50-50 when he does, it all of a sudden becomes 51-49 in favor of the GOP.

5. This one’s most important: every seat will matter in 2024. The 2024 Senate map is brutal for the Democratic Party, especially if they’re trying to ride on the coattails of an increasingly feeble 81-year-old President who’s claiming he can do the job through the age of 86. In the 2024 Senate elections, the Republicans only have to defend 10 seats to the Democrats’ 23. What’s more, the GOP has excellent pickup opportunities in currently Democratic Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. That’s nine vulnerable Democratic seats.

Do you know how many vulnerable Republican seats there are? By my count… zero. (There is no realistic scenario under which Democrats can pick up a seat in Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, or Wyoming. Mayyybe Rick Scott in Florida?)

So without flipping a red seat blue, if the Democrats have just 50 seats heading into the 2024 Senate elections, they need to run the table on all nine of their vulnerable seats, and even then they’d only keep the majority if they win the presidential election that year so that they can send a Democratic VP to break ties.

At least if they’re at 51, they can spare a loss, either at the Senate level or the presidency, and maintain control of the chamber.

So who will win? All signs point to Warnock earning a narrow win to get the Dems to 51. These signs include:

  • Warnock won a plurality of the vote in the initial election, 49.4%-48.5%. If the electorate looks the same, only with third-party voters forced to pick between the major party nominees, Warnock is a lot closer to 50% + 1 than Walker is. Walker would have to win 3 of every 4 new voters to make up the gap.
  • Logic suggests Walker was helped by being on the same party line as Governor Brian Kemp, who won 53.4% of the vote. How many Republicans who turned out to vote for Kemp and held their noses to vote for Walker because they had already made the trip to the voting booth won’t turn out in a runoff where Kemp isn’t on the ballot anymore? In fact, every other statewide Republican outpaced Walker and won their race, as depicted by FiveThirtyEight:
  • The initial deficit and lack of company on the ballot is a difficult one-two punch for Walker to overcome. Still, his chances would have climbed if this runoff actually decided the Senate majority, as it’s easy to envision Georgia Republicans turning out just for that purpose. But with Democrats having already clinched the majority, it’s hard for Republicans embarrassed by their nominee to justify turning out to support him.
  • And then there’s the data. FiveThirtyEight has charted 12 runoff polls since the midterms, and Warnock has 9 leads alongside 2 ties and a one-point Walker lead. Real Clear Politics has charted ten runoff polls, and all of them have Warnock with a small lead ranging from 2 to 5 points. In all ten of those polls Warnock is at 50% or higher.

With Warnock only needing to build off his initial performance by 0.6% of the vote, all of the above tells me he’ll grow his initial plurality enough to win a majority.

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